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Entry for September 7, 2007

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The tropical ocean surrounding the southern Philippines is considered the cradle of biodiversity for shallow water marine animals, but there has been little biological exploration of its deep waters, twisted trenches and seafloor basins.

Generally, the longer the period of time allowed for evolution and the greater variety of ecological niches available lead to an increased diversity of species. The Celebes Sea and surrounding marine environments perfectly illustrate this rule, which is why they could be called the "heart of the sea."

Low sea levels during ancient times kept the basins isolated from each other, which may have allowed unique species to develop within them. The abundance of shallow water species in this area suggests that ancient geological processes allowed marine life to evolve into a tapestry of animals and plants unlike anywhere else on Earth.

The area, which is sometimes called the "coral triangle," includes parts of the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia and is centered around the Celebes Sea. Divers and scientists have flocked to the region for decades because of the clear, warm water and high levels of species diversity. Almost like an underwater rainforest, the variety of shallow water corals, fishes and invertebrates is unparalleled anywhere else in the world. This biological hotspot is a high priority area for conserving marine life.

Another intriguing feature of the Celebes Sea is its shallow rim, which has insulated its deep waters from the frigid water that flows through virtually all other deep oceans. As a result, for 25 million years the water there has remained warmer, even at great depths. At one point in Earth's history, all

Researchers deploying the rope cam
deep ocean waters were similarly warm. As plate tectonics forced Antarctica to become isolated and cold, a massive icecap developed, chilling the surrounding ocean water. This colder, denser seawater sank and began flowing around the globe in what oceanographers now call "Antarctic bottom water," chilling the deep sea and forever changing the marine life there. Because the Celebes Sea has had less exposure to this cold water, the deep-sea life may be different from other areas and perhaps contains ancient biological relics.

We expect to make spectacular findings, including discovering new species and capturing images of beautifully strange creatures. We may finally determine whether deep-sea species are as varied in this area as shallow water species are. A remotely operated vehicle (ROV) will allow us to take photographs and video and collect specimens 3,000 meters deep, while samples collected in trawls and plankton nets will be used for detailed taxonomic and genetic analyses.

The research accomplished by this expedition will delve deeper than any previous work to understand one of the planet's most ecologically rich places. We will make our research results available to the regional governments and conservation organizations (including Conservation International, World Wild Life Fund and The Nature Conservancy) to aid management and protection of the area's unique marine life.