By now, the millions of people around the world who followed the saga of a mother orca carrying her dead calf know that the endangered southern-resident orca whales exclusively eat chinook salmon. But what do the chinook eat?

A team of research scientists climbed into a small submarine and plunged to the bottom of the Salish Sea off San Juan Island two weeks ago, in search of the forage fish that are a staple of the chinook’s diet.

They were looking for sand lance – a bottom-dwelling fish rich in fats and protein. Scientists know very little about its life and habitat in the Salish Sea (in the north-western portion of the US state of Washington). But they know it’s a critical link in the food chain.

“If this forage fish disappears, the salmon will disappear,” said Gary Greene, a marine geologist who works with the non-profit SeaDoc Society. “We’re just starting to get a handle on these things now.”

Ocean

A file photo showing a baby orca whale being pushed by her mother after being born off the Canada coast near Victoria, British Columbia. Whale researchers are keeping close watch on an endangered orca that has spent the past week carrying and keeping her dead calf afloat in Pacific Northwest waters. The display has struck an emotional chord around the world and highlighted the plight of the declining population of southern resident killer whales that has not seen a successful birth since 2015. Photo: AP/Center for Whale Research/David Ellifrit

The scientists had a rare opportunity to view the sand lance’s habitat through the porthole of the small sub, which was built by Everett-based OceanGate. The submersible has a bulbous viewing window on the front, and can hold five people and dive about 500m – one-and-a-half times as deep as the Columbia Center, Seattle’s tallest building, is high.

Scientists want to develop a baseline of knowledge about the sand lance to see if their habitat is changing. One concern: sea level rise, which will affect the currents, could sweep away the sandy sediment that sand lance live in.

The sub “was a really good observatory”, said Greene after his first dive in the vessel.

SeaDoc, an 18-year-old non-profit based on Orcas Island, works to understand the environmental factors that could affect the health of the inland sea.

“Our role is to gather the science needed to make decisions about how we can better take care of this place,” said Joe Gaydos, science director for SeaDoc. “We saw a clear need for deep sea research that was not happening” because of the cost and logistics of underwater exploration, he said. SeaDoc used private funding to partner with the OceanGate Foundation to make the sub available.

Greene, a researcher with Moss Landing Marine Labs in California who now lives in the San Juans, is an expert in underwater topography, and has mapped the entire Salish Sea floor. On Sept 11, he dived in the sub with Matt Baker, a marine biologist and sand-lance expert. Both scientists work out of the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Labs.

Ocean

Dr Gary Greene is a marine geologist who works with the non-profit SeaDoc Society. He and another researcher explored the bottom of the Salish Sea looking for sand lance. If this forage fish disappears, the salmon will disappear, he said.

Greene said he and Baker were surprised to see many more sand lance than they expected. The fish popped out of the sand as the sub approached, an arresting sight that hinted at how the chinook may be able to hunt them.

The sand lance is so oily that if you dry it out, it will burn, Greene said. It has no swim bladder to stabilise it in the water column, unusual among fish. To rest, escape predators and overwinter during cold months, the slender fish uses its pointed snout to dive headfirst into shifting “waves” of sand hundreds of feet below the surface.

It dines on tiny organisms like copepods and zooplankton, transferring energy from organisms at the bottom of the food chain to animals at the top, like killer whales.

The sub’s scientists have also explored whether scientific trawling on the sea floor is causing any damage to the environment (so far, it looks like it is not). They also took a close look at the red sea urchins that live in Haro Strait, the deep channel west of San Juan Island’s Lime Kiln Point State Park, where orcas hunt for salmon – and where J50, the three-year-old resident of J pod, was last seen alive.

Here at the edge of the island, the bottom drops off precipitously. It’s an ideal habitat for red sea urchins, which can live up to 150 years. They move so little that “they’re kind of like an old growth forest,” said Alex Lowe, a UW graduate student studying biology.

On a dive last week, Lowe and Aaron Galloway, an assistant professor at the University of Oregon’s Institute of Marine Biology, spotted a red sea urchin at about 284m – more than double the known range of the urchin.

Ocean

Sea kelp is the preferred food of red sea urchins, which have limited mobility. They snag the kelp with their spines.

The urchins feast on a conveyor belt of kelp salad – leaves that have broken off kelp plants. “This expands our perspective on what this particular species does,” Galloway said.

Recently, four graduate students took a turn underwater in the sub to study the effects of trawling on the sea’s floor.

After a three-hour dive, the sub came to the surface in a froth of bubbles. Two OceanGate boats, a big UW research towing vessel and a small inflatable craft zoomed in, helping to guide the sub onto a cradle on a barge that is used to tow the submersible around. The sub moves slowly, and needs to be towed long distances.

Once it was secured to the cradle, the students popped out of the top hatch, perching on the vessel’s top to put their shoes on before climbing a ladder down to the barge. They were followed by their pilot, Stockton Rush, the CEO of OceanGate.

The students, all studying with UW professor Adam Summers, were beaming as they returned to one of the UW research boats, the Molly B, for the ride home.

How was it down there?

In a word: “Awesome!” – Tribune News Service/The Seattle Times/Katherine Long

Ocean

Fresh off the submarine, graduate students (from left) Frederike Klimm, Kayla Hall, Jules Chabain and Karly Cohen discuss their experience as they head back to the UW Friday Harbor Laboratories. The researchers all proclaimed the experience of sitting at the bottom of the sea as awesome.