Deep reefs give up se­crets

Port Douglas & Mossman Gazette - - NEWS - RICHARD KOSER

SCI­EN­TISTS have re­turned from an ex­pe­di­tion to the deeper reaches of the Great Bar­rier Reef with a trea­sure trove of corals and other crit­ters, some of which may be new species.

In the process, they sent their re­mote­con­trolled co­ral-col­lec­tor to places no robot has been be­fore.

The team of sci­en­tists from James Cook Uni­ver­sity, the Uni­ver­sity of Queens­land and the Uni­ver­sity of Syd­ney were study­ing deep-wa­ter reefs to dis­cover if they could pro­vide sanc­tu­ary for reef species threat­ened by cli­mate change.

The ex­pe­di­tion, spon­sored by Aus­tralian Geo­graphic and skip­pered by lo­cal sea-dog John Rum­ney, ex­ten­sively sur­veyed the north­ern edges of Holmes Reef and Flora Reef in the Co­ral Sea.

Team co-leader Tom Bridge said the ex­pe­di­tion had turned up some re­mark­able find­ings, al­though a vast amount of anal­y­sis still needed to be done.

“We col­lected around 200 sam­ples,” Mr Bridge said.

“We were in­ves­ti­gat­ing the ’twi­light zone’.

“Most reef re­search is con­cen­trated on the top 20-30m of wa­ter, where SCUBA divers can safely go.

“The ar­eas be­low that are al­most com­pletely un­known.

“We were try­ing to get an idea of what lives be­low that depth.”

Op­er­ated from the sur­face, the team’s re­motely op­er­ated ve­hi­cle headed down to depths of up to 150m to video the reef com- mu­ni­ties and bring back as many sam­ples of hard and soft corals as pos­si­ble.

Mr Bridge said it was very likely the team had col­lected some un­known species.

“As long we look hard enough, we’ll find some­thing new.”

Port Dou­glas-based ma­rine bi­ol­o­gist Chris “Fluffy” Jones said he was as­ton­ished when he spot­ted a microscopic sea-horse on a deep-wa­ter sea-fan.

“I was just think­ing it was a per­fect habi­tat for pygmy sea­horses, and this tiny speck floated in front of the cam­era.”

While the ROV can dive deeper than hu­mans can safely go, the ma­chine’s sam­pling claw is about as sen­si­tive as Jeremy Clark­son, and Fluffy was wor­ried the ROV would drop the sam­ple be­fore it sur­faced.

“I jumped onto one of the scoot­ers and free-dived to 40m to meet the ROV.

“The guys op­er­at­ing the ROV re­leased the fan and I was able to bring it back to the sur­face.

“There was just one of the sea­horses left on the fan.”

The 6mm-long crit­ter was pro­vi­sion­ally named Hip­pocam­pus fluffyii, al­though it may be a vari­a­tion of an al­ready-dis­cov­ered species, Hip­pocam­pus denise.

“Denise is still a very rare species,” Mr Bridge said.

“It’s never been recorded in Aus­tralian wa­ters, as far as I’m aware, and never at that depth.”

The team also tri­alled a 3D un­der­wa­ter cam­era ca­pa­ble of map­ping the reef to high res­o­lu­tions.

The claw: the re­mote-con­trolled deep-sea rover New or not: the pgymy sea­horse pro­vi­sion­ally named Hip­pocam­pus fluffyii 3D vi­sion: re­searcher Os­car Pizarro with the stereo­scopic cam­era

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