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Team ends 1st leg of ocean expedition
Second leg to probe hard, high ground of Continental Shelf

Tuesday, August 6, 2002
Of The Post and Courier Staff

The first leg of a national ocean adventure ended Monday in Shem Creek as a team of Charleston marine scientists came ashore after 10 days of deep-sea dives.
The expedition represents a new era of ocean exploration, said Capt. Craig McLean, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's new Office of Ocean Exploration.
George Sedberry, principal investigator on the voyage, said the mission is "particularly exciting because we started using new technology to explore the oceans."
Sedberry, a senior marine scientist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, deemed the mission an absolute success after he returned to land Monday evening.
McLean added, "This is a new way of doing business." He said an interdisciplinary group of experts is approaching ocean study from many different angles to answer questions about the nature of our sea?
"We want to open new doors," McLean said.
This mission, called Islands in the Stream, is gathering information that is more broad-based than studies in the past and will spur research by other scientists, he said.
New technology such as a state-of-the-art, deep-sea submersible let Sedberry explore and, for the first time, see ocean features that he had crossed hundreds of times on the ocean surface, he said. A wealth of navigation software will provide, store and assemble the newly discovered information, he said.
People will be able to visit an Internet site to view the sea bottom off Charleston, watch a video of the depths and read a list of fish species found there last week, fish that spawn there, currents and temperatures, Sedberry said.
The first leg of the mission, which Sedberry led, focused on searching for spawning grounds of fish that are commercially and recreationally valuable and whose numbers are declining. Scientists dove in the submersible on reef sites from the St. Augustine (Fla.) Scarp to a feature closer to Charleston known as the Georgetown Hole.
They saw signs of courtship among hog snapper, scamp grouper and an aggregate of hundreds of red snapper, Sedberry said.
"There are many interesting scientific questions that still remain and need to be answered about that part of the ocean," McLean said of the South Atlantic Bight, the East Coast stretching from Florida to North Carolina. "It is important to our national understanding of the marine world, the marine environment and marine resources."
The mission this year focuses on the bight and continues what began last summer with the first Islands in the Stream expeditions. They discovered new species, found new ranges of known species and produced better maps, he said. Last year's voyages mapped more than 3,200 square nautical miles.
Last week, German Ojeda of Coastal Carolina University used side scan sonar in the dark of night to see the sea floor, distinguish sand and mud from rock. The scientists used this information to determine the most important places to dive in the submersible the next day. Scientists wanted to visit a hard sea floor with structure where fish and other marine life gather.
Information on hard bottoms in this region is so limited that maps based on the data collected during the 10-day mission will be extremely valuable, Ojeda said.
Leg one of Islands in the Stream, Exploring Underwater Oases, ended Monday when the Carolina Clipper, a charter boat from Shem Creek, took 17 scientists to the Seward Johnson to begin leg two and picked up 19 from greater Charleston.
Leg two will explore the high, hard ground of the outer Continental Shelf and the vast reefs of deep-water corals thought to form the slope off the Carolinas. Data is so scarce that scientists have little knowledge of the habitats, how they function ecologically and what species live there. They're thought to include a number of commercially important and unique fish species.
The final leg, which ends Sept. 1, will search for new medicines. The sea may contain 80 percent of the world's plant and animal species, McLean's office estimates. So far, 12 natural marine products are in advanced trials or are being tested on people.
Scientists hope to find new sources of future drugs that might be used to study, diagnose or treat such ills as cancer and heart disease and infectious diseases.
The last deep-sea dives will deploy a special low-light camera and light-tight traps to catch big-eyed creatures that dwell on the ocean bottom, where virtually no light penetrates. The animals are thought to see bioluminescence, light produced by a chemical reaction within an organism.
"We really have a great group of scientists with diverse backgrounds, and we are sharing a lot of knowledge and expertise among us," Sedberry said. "Those that don't know the fish are learning about them from the fish people, and the fish people are learning about the sponges and corals from the invertebrate people. The geologists are teaching us all things. We are coming up with interesting ideas for classroom students as well. It is a learning experience for all of us."
Inside the deep-sea submersible, scientists filmed images of places that people had never seen and took samples of sediment, rock and marine life expected to include species previously unknown to science. From the deck of the Seward Johnson, scientists collected a variety of samples and will study fish to learn whether they were spawning.
Among other things, scientists found six venomous lionfish, natives of the Indo-pacific, in three places at the edge of the Continental Shelf off South Carolina.
"It's a really important discovery. Every time you go to the bottom, you see one," Sedberry said. Lionfish are predators and may pose a problem to native species, he said.