The North West Shelf of Australia is home to unique coral ecosystems: Mesophotic Coral Ecosystems (MCEs). While the waters of Australia are famous for shallower coral systems such as the Great Barrier Reef, MCEs there (and around the globe) remain largely unknown and undocumented. MCEs exist at depths between 30-150m, and recently their study has become possible due to technological advancements. MCEs are hypothesized to have significant ecological importance, including the potential to reseed  shallow water corals under environmental stress. The ability of MCEs to provide a refuge for shallow water species appears critically important, as shallow reef corals face a range of stressors  including a changing climate. However, little is known about MCE community structure, what ocean processes control MCE composition, geographic distribution, and their connectivity to other coral systems. 

Revolutionizing MCE Monitoring
Few conservation efforts have focused on mesophotic reefs, but these ecosystems are also challenged with anthropogenic and natural stressors. The more researchers have learned about MCE’s, the more it appears imperative to advocate for their protection. Scientists aboard the R/V Falkor will address important knowledge gaps in understanding MCEs as well as lay a foundation for effective future monitoring and protection of MCEs across the globe.

Effective monitoring systems are essential for understanding long-term trends in reef communities, as well and for creating conservation efforts. This expedition will make current monitoring methods much more precise focusing on 10-100s of meters while testing innovative in-situ classification systems to monitor key habitats on mesophotic reefs.

At four MCE locations, the team will use underwater robotics and novel imaging technology to capture high definition video across each shoal. The team will create a streamlined system to collect, process, and analyze the imagery using R/V Falkor’s High Performance Computing (HPC) systems to vastly improve the quality and efficiency of data collection. In parallel, ROV SuBastian will collect biological samples from corals and sponges. The collected specimens will be used to ground-truth the capacity of the new imaging technique for biodiversity studies and taxonomic identification.

Ultimately, the expedition will provide a foundation for the broad application of the new state-of-the-art analysis tools in more than Australia, as MCEs across the globe will benefit through open-access platforms. The new sampling and analysis approaches represent an important scientific benchmark enabling future monitoring and standardization and comparability of MCE data globally.

Coral Connections and Conservation
Sampling and studies of MCEs in Australia are difficult to undertake without dedicated effort from remotely operated  vessels. This expedition will mark the first time an ROV and AUV will be used to collect MCE specimens for genetic analysis and reproductive studies. These samples will provide exciting new insight into how individual MCE’s are related, as well as establish a baseline knowledge of community structure and reproductive  strategies within MCE. Ecosystems in the NW shelf face a myriad of anthropogenic and natural impacts, therefore recognizing what species exist, how they are maintained, and what physical processes drive MCEs will be extremely important first steps for conservation.

Corals of the deeper mesophotic reef in South Scott Lagoon, from an expedition on R/V Falkor in 2015.
The location of the North West Shelf, Australia and its major basins (Geoscience Australia, 2015).
Preparing coral samples for later taxonomic and genetic analyses, from an expedition on R/V Falkor in 2015.
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ROV SuBastian live footage from Australia’s North West Shelf

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