Divers search for clues to an epidemic killing millions of starfish
As dawn approaches, teams load oxygen tanks, wetsuits and underwater cameras into vans and trucks. A motor boat is set on a trailer, and students prepare measuring tape and clipboards — an urgent expedition is underway. At first light, the team of researchers heads down the coast from the University of California Santa Cruz to Monterey Bay.
For months, marine biologist Pete Raimondi and his team have been diving in these waters, searching for clues to an epidemic called starfish wasting syndrome. The mysterious disease has decimated starfish populations in the coastal waters and tide pools along the West Coast, from Alaska to Southern California. In some cases, 95 percent of the sea star population has been wiped out.
The infection starts with a small, white lesion that quickly spreads and consumes the animal, often overnight.
“What you’ve got is just a mass of tissue that’s decomposing, sometimes turning into this goo-like mass underwater,” Raimondi said.
NBC News’ footage of Raimondi’s dive reveals a dire situation. Droves of infected starfish with missing limbs, falling apart before one’s eyes. Still, Raimondi says, what’s most worrisome is what one doesn’t see. Two species that used to thrive in Monterey Bay have already vanished.