Seamounts of the Galapagos Marine Reserve

Seamounts of the Galapagos Marine Reserve

Characterizing Seamounts and Deep-sea Ecosystems of the Galapagos Marine Reserve

This project is currently Active

Seamounts are underwater mountains, often of volcanic origin, that rise above the surrounding seabed at least 100 m from the seabed but do not reach the surface. These underwater structures provide deep-sea hard substrate, allowing productive formation of deep-sea coral and sponge reef communities. Additionally, seamounts are considered highly productive, redirecting deep-sea currents rich in nutrients that attract a myriad of other marine organisms, such as fish and marine mammals.

Due to the volcanic history of the Galapagos Archipelago, hundreds of seamounts, ranging from > 3000 to 100 m in height, are known to be scattered on the seafloor in the reserve. Given that most seamounts lie outside the margins for safe SCUBA diving (< 40 m), and exploring deep-sea ecosystems is technologically and financially challenging, our understanding of seamounts and other deep-sea habitats remains very limited.

To close this critical knowledge gap CDF, in collaboration with the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD), is leading a multi-institutional collaborative effort to characterize the biodiversity, ecology and physical environment of these mysterious deep-sea ecosystems.

Our Research Team

Stuart Banks

Principal Investigator

Stuart Banks is an oceanographer and marine ecologist by training from the National Oceanographic Centre, UK who has spent most of his career working in marine science for conservation and MPA...

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Salomé Buglass


Salomé Buglass is a marine scientist at the CDF since 2016. She is engaged in several applied research projects that support the management of the Galapagos Marine Reserve. These include undertaking...

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Paulina Sepa

Project Assistant

Paulina Sepa-Egas is a Galapagos biologist who graduated from the University of Guayaquil. During her bachelor’s degree studies, she also undertook internships at the Galapagos National Park...

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Project Details

This research project came together following three international oceanographic research cruises that took place between 2015-2016. In collaboration with CDF these expeditions, equipped with remotely operated vehicles (ROV) and manned submersibles, enabled the exploration of seamounts and lava flows at depths of 3200 to 100 meters.

Deep Rover submersible taking a sample during the exploration of the seamount benthos.
Deep Rover submersible taking a sample during the exploration of the seamount benthos. Photo: CDF / Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Over 40 hours of video transects were recorded along seamount habitats and more than 300 biological samples of deep-sea organisms were collected. Additionally, the vessels carried out multiband bathymetry surveys over an area of 7065 km2 to support the development of high-resolution maps of the archipelago´s seafloor. Since 2016 our team has been analyzing this unique and valuable dataset, and working towards completing first large-scale characterization of the benthic habitats and biodiversity of these mysterious deep-sea spaces.

Deep-sea coral garden found along a deep seamount at around 800m depth.
Deep-sea coral garden found along a deep seamount at around 800m depth. Photo: CDF / Ocean Exploration Trust.

In 2018 we undertook a pilot study using small commercial ROVs to explore uncharted shallow seamounts, known to be key fishing sites, between depths of 200 to 30 m. A special characteristic of shallow seamounts is that they often reach the sunlight (euphotic) zone of the ocean, meaning that they potentially support a diverse range of marine habitats and mesophotic communities. After successfully video-surveying three shallow seamounts at different depth ranges, we will soon begin the analysis the videos to describe the habitats we found.

Our main goal is to complete the first comprehensive biophysical characterization of selected representative seamounts and other associated deep-sea ecosystems across the archipelago’s different bioregions.

The specific objectives of our project are:

  • Locate and map the distribution of the seamounts of the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR)
  • Characterize the biodiversity and ecology of the seamounts and other associated deep-sea ecosystems in the GMR.
  • Heighten local awareness and understanding of seamounts by sharing our findings with local communities in the Galapagos.
  • Provide essential baseline information on seamount ecosystems to the Galapagos National Park managers to support science-based decision making for the protection and management of these understudied ecosystems.

Our results

With the help of expert taxonomist from all over the world so far we have identified more than 120 deep sea organism that were collected in the 2015-2016 expeditions. We have found that over half of these species are new records for the Galapagos and a few are potentially new species to science. Based on the analysis of video transects, we will be publishing the first inventories of deep-sea invertebrates for each phylum (e.g. Arthropoda, Mollusca, Cnidaria, etc.) on the online Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS), accessible to the public. Additionally, we are currently analyzing the video transect data to produce the first description of the composition and distribution of deep-sea communities on seamounts in the Galapagos.

CDF's Seamount team and Videoray team preparing ROV before diving it to a shallow seamount.
CDF's Seamount team and Videoray team preparing ROV before diving it to a shallow seamount. Photo: Joshua Vela, CDF.

Although the in-depth analysis of the data set collected in the pilot study is about to start, preliminary results demonstrate the viability of surveying shallow seamounts with smaller and more affordable ROVs. What is more, we believe we have made an unexpected discovery: a kelp forest on the summit of one of the seamounts at a depth ~ 50 m. More results and details on this macroalgae habitat and other seamount ecosystems will be posted soon, so stay tuned for our next project blog posts.

Keywords: Seamounts, deep-sea, exploration, benthic invertebrates, new species

Bibliographical References

  • Morato, T., Hoyle, S. D., Allain, V., & Nicol, S. J. (2010). Seamounts Are Hotspots of Pelagic Biodiversity in the Open Ocean. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107 (21): 9707–11. doi:10.1073/pnas.0910290107.
  • Pitcher, T. (2010). Eight Major Target Species in World Seamount Fisheries. Oceanography 23 (1): 130–31. doi:10.5670/oceanog.2010.92.
  • Staudigel, H., Koppers, A., William Lavelle, J., Pitcher, T. & Shank, T. (2010). Defining the Word ‘Seamount.’ Oceanography 23 (01): 20–21. doi:10.5670/oceanog.2010.85.
  • Tracey, D. M., Rowden, A., Mackay, K., & Compton, T. (2011). Habitat-Forming Cold-Water Corals Show Affinity for Seamounts in the New Zealand Region. Marine Ecology Progress Series 430: 1–22. doi:10.3354/meps09164.


The mission of the Charles Darwin Foundation and its Research Station is to tackle the greatest threats and challenges to Galapagos through scientific research and conservation action, in order to safeguard one of the world’s most important natural treasures.

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