Interview with Dr. Erik Cordes

by Ken Kostel

tim shank
Erik Cordes retrieves a fistful of tubeworms brought back to the
surface in Alvin's biobox.
What do you study?
I study deepwater corals and deep-sea cold-seep communities. I’m primarily a community ecologist working on the interactions between species and how they form communities in the deep sea, but a lot of my research is also on what habitats certain species prefer, where they like to live, and how they make their living, and also some of the genetic relationships between different species in deep-sea communities.

How many times have you been down in Alvin or in other submersibles?
I’ve made over 30 dives in manned submersibles. Most of those have been in the Gulf of Mexico, though I’ve been to a number of sites in the Pacific as well. I’ve had seven dives in Alvin so far, and I’m really looking forward to my eighth.

How has the oil spill changed what you do?
I think the oil spill has changed a lot of people’s focus in the Gulf of Mexico. We’ve always been very interested in trying to see what was down there, to document the different forms of life, to explore new parts of the seafloor and discover new coral communities, new cold-seep communities. Now, our attention is much more on detecting long-term change and seeing how fragile some of these communities really are, seeing what sort of damage may have been caused by the oil spill. This is a really difficult thing to do in deepwater when we’re still in the discovery phase. We still don’t know what’s down there. We’re still finding new species. We’re still finding new habitats. We’re still finding entire new ecosystems, and to document the impact on something that no one’s ever discovered before is a difficult challenge.

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Erik Cordes discusses how important it is to explore the deep ocean.

Many of these animals already live around lots of oil. Why would the spill be of concern?
I think in some ways these organisms may be more vulnerable to an oil spill or oil exposure than a lot of other organisms do, simply because they already live in what we consider to be a fairly challenging environment. They have fairly low oxygen levels compared to the surrounding deep sea. There are already a lot of toxins in the environment that they have to deal with. They’re already good at dealing with these toxins, but to add that much more is going to present them with even more of a challenge.

How did you end up studying this?
I grew up in Boston, but my grandfather lived in Gulfport, Mississippi, and I would go out fishing with him a lot when I was a kid. I had to do a science project for my second-grade class, and we took a trawl out off of his little boat. I preserved all the organisms I found in little Ball jars, transported them back, and figured out how they were all related to each other. I’ve just continued to study it ever since.

Why does it matter that we know what lives in the deep ocean?
I’ve always thought that to have a real complete understanding of our role on Earth and just to understand life on Earth in general and all of the possibilities for life, it’s essential that we know what species live around us. One of the least explored places on Earth is in the deep sea. We know less about the deep sea than we know about the surface of the moon. It’s really amazing that we have vast areas even within U.S. waters that we haven’t seen yet, that we haven’t explored, that we have no idea what lives there.

What’s so special about the Gulf of Mexico?
The Gulf of Mexico is probably the best-explored body of water in the world. With all of the oil-industry activity that’s been going on there for years, with all the submersible dives that have been there for the past 30 years, it’s amazing that we can still find new habitats. We can still explore areas of the seafloor that have never been seen. Every cruise we go on—and I just got back from a cruise just recently—we can still find brand-new communities that we didn’t know existed. We found new seep communities. We found new coral communities. We really have no idea what is around us, even in our own backyard, and it’s impossible to have a good understanding of life on Earth if we don’t even know what species live in U.S. waters



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