Australia is an island continent, surrounded by three oceans and multiple seas; there are four major ocean currents flowing around the large mass of land. These bodies of water are home to amazing organisms. Yet with so much water, ocean life, and discovery potential, Australia has limited research opportunities. There is only one research vessel, the R/V Investigator, and no science remote-controlled vehicles. In 2020, R/V Falkor and Schmidt Ocean Institute will be making their way to Australia to study topics such as deep-sea exploration of submarine canyons and in-depth researching of coral ecosystems on all four sides of the continent. 

From the 2015 Perth Canyon expedition, this image is of a deep-sea assemblage including a Flytrap anemone and Basket star: The venus flytrap anemone is clinging to the stem of a soft coral, while a basket star has all of its arms extended into the water column to feed.SOI/ University of Western Australia

Deep-Sea Coral and Canyon Adventure

Bremer and Perth Canyons, Southwestern Australia
January/February

Principal Investigators Dr. Julie Trotter (The University of Western Australia) and Dr. Paolo Montagna (Institute of Polar Sciences), along with their team of interdisciplinary researchers, will complete the first ROV-based deep-sea exploration of the Southern Ocean-facing submarine canyons offshore southwestern Australia. The team is advancing the findings of their successful 2015 expedition to Perth Canyon, which offered significant optimism for finding prospective habitats, new species, and critical coral species for proxy applications. The area, Bremer Canyon, resides within the all-important Southern Ocean. The southern polar waters feed all major ocean basins and play a central role in driving the global climate system. The team will focus on targeting both key living and fossils of deep water corals. The skeletons of these organisms will be subject to comprehensive chemical (proxy) analyses to reconstruct ocean environmental records (both recent and long-term) to help better understand ocean-climate dynamics, especially for periods of major climate change. The outcomes will have important implications for the sustainability of these ecosystems, as well as similar habitats worldwide, providing much-needed deep-water proxy data that are key to accurately model and predict ocean-climate dynamics in a warming world with increasing CO2 concentrations. The answers found can have major impacts both regionally and worldwide, helping to predict the effects on deep-sea calcifiers and marine ecosystems in general, while also informing the wider context of modelling future climate change scenarios and their broader impacts on society.

Understanding the ways in which the different species live and function, is fundamental to justify protection of these areas.

Illuminating Biodiversity of Cape Range

Cape Range Canyon, Eastern Indian Ocean
March/April

Very few deep-sea areas have had the luxury of being well-sampled over both large spatial and temporal scales. Dr. Nerida Wilson (Western Australian Museum) and her team aim to identify and characterize the benthic biodiversity in Cape Range Canyon and complement ROV surveys with Environmental DNA (or eDNA), which refers to all the genetic material that can be recovered from an environmental sample. Exploring marine areas adjacent to known terrestrial hot spots offers an effective strategy for identifying undiscovered biodiversity. The remote Western Australian coast (Eastern Indian Ocean) is well known for its extensive karst system and network of subterranean water bodies that support an immense diversity of evolutionary significant fauna. In stark contrast, the deep-sea environment adjacent to this celebrated area remains almost unexplored. To counter this information deficit, the interdisciplinary team plans to actively survey a significant and biologically unexplored submarine canyon. The team will expand on the baseline seafloor mapping in the Gascoyne Marine Park to develop the regional context of canyon habitats in which to interpret the faunal inventory. Understanding what biodiversity occurs in these zones is paramount to activating effective management processes.

An example of deep mesophotic coral communities at Scott Reef off Australia. Image from SOI’s 2015 Timor Sea Reef Connections expedition.SOI

Australian Mesophotic Coral Examination

Northwestern Shelf, Western Australia
April/May

Mesophotic Coral Ecosystems (MCEs) are found around the globe. Many are recognized for their economic and ecological values, however knowledge of the MCEs in Australia’s Northwest Shelf are limited, largely due to the logistical challenges of sampling at depth. Dr. Karen Miller (Australian Institute of Marine Science) and her team of researchers will be focusing on three main questions for this cruise: (1) How do we most effectively and efficiently monitor the health of mesophotic coral ecosystems? (2) What are the links among geographically isolated mesophotic reefs? (3) What processes drive the community structure on mesophotic reefs of NW Australia? Using ROV SuBastian for biodiversity collections and R/V Falkor’s high-performance computing platforms for image analysis, the team will develop a system that has the potential to revolutionize capacity in monitoring mesophotic and deep reef communities. The outcomes of this cruise will provide visibility and new insights to the diversity, ecology, and importance of MCEs to ecosystem integrity of Australia’s Northwest Shelf, while also contributing to the development and accessibility of novel approaches to monitor and protect MCEs globally. 

Oblique aerial view of Ritter Island photographed in 2006 by John Holder (the originator of Oceanic Expeditions) from SW looking NE, with some of the location names used in the report by Saunders and Kuduon (2009). From of Saunders and Kuduon (2009).Saunders and Kuduon (2009) via Smithsonian

Reconstructing Ritter

Ritter Island, Papua New Guinea
June

The 1888 Ritter Island (Papua New Guinea) landslide was the largest historical volcanic-island landslide and generated a devastating regional tsunami. Dr. Sebastian Watt (University of Birmingham) and his international team of researchers are joining  R/V Falkor to reconstruct in detail the dynamics of the Ritter landslide event, while testing the success of tsunami models in reproducing the Ritter tsunami observations, and documenting the re-establishment of benthic biota and early successional processes across a range of depths following catastrophic seafloor disturbances. To improve the understanding of tsunami hazards from volcanic-island landslides, it is essential that landslide-tsunami models are testable against a detailed field data set. The Ritter landslide provides a great example for tsunami observations. The project will use ROV SuBastian equipped with a sediment corer and microscope to produce a comprehensive reconstruction of landslide deposition.

Microplastics: Surface to Sediment

Cairns, Australia
July

As plastics are broken down in the ocean particles form, and their physical properties change (e.g., density, size, shape), they become ingrained in marine snow and sink through the water column. As they sink their density discontinuity slows, stopping the sinking process and allowing an aggregation of microplastic particles to form. Over time, snow particles containing microplastics continue to sink and end up in the sediments, producing a historical record as a function of depth. Dr. Scott Gallager (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) and his team will meet R/V Falkor in Australia to better understand the fate of microplastics from surface to sediments in areas of accretion and dispersal. The science team will study and quantify the abundance and polymer type of microplastics in the deep sea using new technology developed to detect and quantify microplastics. Using a suite of tools and technology including Falkor’s High Performance Computing and numerical modeling, airborne imaging, Lagrangian surface floats, robotic surface samplers, midwater samplers and robotic systems, genomic sequencing, benthic samplers and ROV SuBastian, the scientists will provide a complete end-to-end description and characterization of where the missing plastics may be located.

Seamounts, Canyons & Reefs of the Great Barrier Reef

August

As ocean temperatures increase, a pressing global challenge in marine science is to better understand the distribution and characteristics of the critical habitats that support mesophotic and deep-water coral communities. Dr. Brendan Brooke (Geoscience Australia) and Dr Robin Beaman (James Cook University) and their multi-disciplinary team will apply a suite of cutting-edge technologies to explore the remote, little-studied platform reefs and seamounts in the Coral Sea Marine Park and canyons in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The goal of this expedition is to understand what role these large-scale features may play as refuges for coral and other benthic and pelagic communities in a warming ocean. On board of R/V Falkor the team will map and characterize the structure of the features, the habitats they provide and biota they support to reveal their formative geological processes and present-day key ecological features. This will enable predictions of the broader distribution of similar environments that support critical deep-water biological communities. The survey outputs will greatly expand the knowledge base for the sustainable management of these unique features; and establish environmental baselines by building on previous mapping in the Marine Parks. This work will also highlight the importance of high-relief features globally for marine biodiversity conservation and provide a template for a feasible survey approach to effectively inform management of high-value, remote areas.

A Lagrangian Float, drifting above reef making images for scientists to study and label. Image from Dr. Pizarro’s 2015 Coordinated Robotics expedition.SOI

Navigating Reefs with Autonomous Imaging and Monitoring

Capricorn Bunker in the Great Barrier Reef
October

This research and development cruise will focus on scalable autonomous technologies for benthic visual mapping and monitoring coral reefs of the Capricorn and Bunker Group in the Great Barrier Reef using multiple unmanned platforms. Dr. Oscar Pizarro (University of Sydney) and his team of international researchers plan to develop a system based on multiple, simple, robust imaging platforms that can be repeatedly be deployed from an autonomous surface vessel or operated by a non-specialist from a small boat. The development and demonstration of this imaging system is expected to remove three of the major impediments to widespread and frequent seafloor imaging: (1) the cost of manned support vessels, (2) the need of expert personnel to operate traditional robotic platforms, (3) the high level of expense and technical complexity associated with the long duration of sub-surface vehicles. The success of this cruise has the potential to change the course of seafloor exploration and mapping moving forward into the future. 

Sensing Superoxides: Sensors To Predict Controls on Coral Health

Noumea, New Caledonia
November
A closeup of the Diver-operated submersible chemiluminescent sensor wand, collecting a water samples from a coral species known to be particularly resilient to coral bleaching (Credit WHOI).Image by Andrew Babbin (MIT) via WHOI

Drs. Colleen Hansel, Scott Wankel, Amy Apprill (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute) and their team will join R/V Falkor for a sea-trial for three novel submersible sensors currently in development. These sensors will measure the reactive oxygen species (ROS) superoxide across a range of coral reef systems spanning shallow to deep corals. The sensors include an electrode-based microsensor, a hand-held chemiluminescent sensor, and a remotely operated vehicle-integrated sensor. Together, the sensors have the ability to transform our understanding of the ROS landscape. ROS play a critical yet enigmatic role in coral health and bleaching. Being able to measure the superoxide in a large range of both healthy and stressed corals will allow scientists to better understand the future of coral reefs. The short lifetime of the superoxide and the lack of in situ sensor technology has severely held back research to constrain sources, fluxes, and consequences of the superoxide in oceans. The Principal Investigators and their team have developed the three new sensors to fill the gap in the technology and knowledge that will allow us to predict controls on coral health and growth.

The RAD (Rotary Actuated Dodecahedron) sampler has five origami-inspired “petals” arranged around a central point that fold up to safely capture delicate marine organisms, like this jellyfish.Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Designing the Future 2

Noumea, New Caledonia
December

A significant amount of pelagic deep-sea species remain unsubscribed simply because they cannot be captured and returned to the surface in good enough condition for taxonomic inspection. Advances in the tools used to find and study these organisms have allowed scientists to undertake new explorations into the mesopelagic zone, ushering in a new era of midwater exploration and discovery. Co-Principal Investigators Brennan Phillips (University of Rhode Island) Kakani Katija (MBARI), Robert Wood (Harvard University), David Gruber (City University of New York/Baruch College), and their teams of interdisciplinary researchers have been working on new technology that allows them to study these species in situ; something that has never been done before. They anticipate that their work with set a new benchmark for future midwater expeditions and pave the way for a device that combines all of their technologies into a singular solution for specimen characterization. This will be the culminating expedition that will expand from the team’s 2019 technology trial on board of R/V Falkor.