Using cutting-edge technologies to explore the remote canyons, platform reefs and seamounts of the Coral Sea and Great Barrier Reef Marine Parks

Elizabeth Neil

While global warming remains an urgent issue for the environment, a team of marine biologists are working hard to save our warming oceans.

The Schmidt Ocean Institute is based in California, but just recently the team returned from an expedition to the Great Barrier Reef to research the conservation of coral reefs in the area.

The Schmidt Ocean Institute was accompanied by Geoscience Australia, a Government-run public sector. Together aboard their Research Vessel Falkor, the team set out to a deployment just outside the Great Barrier Reef.

The team left Cairns port on August 1 and were out at sea until August 13, with the purpose of the expedition to research and gain a better understanding of sustaining underwater communities such as coral reefs, and critical deep-water biological communities.

Aboard the RV Falkor, the team used two main pieces of technology for the expedition: the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) SuBastian, and the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) Sirius.

An ROV is an underwater robot controlled by the pilots on the ship. The robot is connected to the ship via a cable, known as an umbilical, which contains lines running commands and power to the vehicle.

An AUV is similar, however it is an unmanned underwater robot and completely independent in completing pre-programmed tasks.

According to Senior Technical Officer of Navigation and Control from the Australian Centre of Field Robotics, Christian Reeks, ROV SuBastian and AUV Sirius were integral to the project.

“SuBastian’s role was to take 4K video of the sea floor and canyons, and the critters that inhabit them,” he said.

“Sirius’ role was to take super high definition images of the coral at the topmost section of the reef.”

As for what these devices uncovered while on their expedition, Christian says the use of both machines together meant there are no limitations to their discoveries.

“SuBastian and Sirius helped us discover new species and find known species in new locations,” he said.

“SuBastian works best in deeper, colder water as it can overheat in the warm shallows … Sirius compliments this as it can operate in up to two metres of water.

“This means when both robots are used together, we can image everything no matter where we are in the coral sea.”

According to the Schmidt Ocean Institute, SuBastian and Sirius aided scientists in discovering five undescribed species of black coral and sponges, as well as recording Australia’s first observation of a rare type of fish; known scientifically as Rhinopias agroliba (a bright and colourful yet well-camouflaged ambush predator belonging to the scorpionfish family).

However, Rhinopias agroliba is special due to its ability to ‘walk’ on its pectoral fins.

In an ABC article James Cook University Research Fellow, Robin Beaman, described the discovery of the scorpionfish as strange.

“It had this beautiful red colour and it walked on its pectoral fins like a set of hands,” he said.

“Straight away it looked weird but it was also displaying this weird behaviour, walking along the sea floor.”

The expedition also saw researchers obtaining the deepest samples of soft and scleractinian coral ever collected, as well as the first sample of ancient bedrock underneath the Great Barrier Reef – which is estimated to be between 40 and 50 millions years old.

According to Christian Reeks, the expedition was invaluable to the conservation of the Great Barrier Reef, which due to global warming and rising sea temperatures is under threat.

By examining and researching the reefs, scientists can achieve a greater understanding of the area and its inhabitants – and sooner discover how to protect the oceanic wonder.

“The marine scientists had a lot of hypotheses about the biology and geology at the Coral Sea that needed confirmation,” he said.

“This expedition was the most detailed examination of the area; this means the scientists can directly observe the finest details hidden in the Coral Sea.”


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