Although $100,000 worth of equipment was damaged during their expedition in the Pacific Ocean west of Ecuador, a crew of UCSB graduate students made a surprising discovery this past year when they found several forests of endangered Galapagos kelp.

During the course of the trip, the group of approximately 15 UC and California State University graduate students and researchers cruised around the Galapagos Islands for two weeks in January, searching for Eisenia galapagensis. The group found the various rare forests 40 to 200 feet below the surface during their scuba dives alongside marine iguanas. Additionally, their discovery was printed yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Earlier this year, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources – more commonly known as the World Conservation Union – included the Galapagos kelp in its list of endangered species. Before this discovery, no one had seen this species of kelp since the 1980s.

UCSB Marine Science Institute researcher Brian Kinlan said if more of this kelp was not discovered, the IUCN might have deemed the species extinct. Now, as a result of this most recent information, the IUCN may decide to classify the underwater flora as somewhat vulnerable or even take it off the list altogether.

“They may reconsider on the basis of this study,” Kinlan said. “This just goes to show how little we know about the ocean and how little of it is explored.”

During their trip, the team had two small, unmanned Remote Operated Vehicles – miniature submersibles with cameras onboard – which they launched from their research vessel, Kinlan said. However, he said underwater obstacles and strong currents in the Galapagos posed a number of threats to their ROVs.

“[The ROV cable] got caught on a sea mountain, the cable pulled loose and the strong sea current pulled it away,” he said.

The second ROV sprung a leak inside the cable connecting it to the surface, causing damage that rendered it unusable for the duration of the trip, Kinlan said.

Yet, by using a model constructed by Kinlan and Michael Graham, an associate professor at San Jose State University and Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, the team found eight different places throughout the Galapagos Islands that contained the kelp.

The model, which is based on the presence of light, nutrients and rocky substrates, also came up with approximately 10,000 square miles of unexplored areas that may have more forests of kelp, Kinlan said.

The team used satellite data to determine the cloudiness of the water and how much light water surfaces received. Researchers also looked at the depths of the sea floor and depths of thermocline – a sharp change in temperature from warm to cold – to search for the forests, Kinlan said.

“We looked for rare spots where light reaches the thermocline,” Kinlan said. “It happens on remote volcanic islands with steep slopes because the colder water gets pushed up to the surface.”

Altogether the trip cost about $250,000, Kinlan said. It was funded by the Hall Family Foundation, Charles Darwin Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

Kinlan said he is planning to return to the Galapagos with a larger ROV so he can dive deeper sometime within the next year.