Deep reefs give up secrets
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