Robotic dives in the GBRMP yield new discoveries

Written By Danielle Moloney 


September marked an important milestone for Australian reefs this year. For the first time, a comprehensive robotic dive in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP) gave scientists a window into the deepest regions of the protected area. Here, at a depth of about 1820 meters (about 5970 feet), researchers were able to view the ocean floor beneath the GBRMP via a high-resolution video captured by a remote controlled robot. 

The GBRMP is well known as the home of the iconic Great Barrier Reef. Despite being one of the largest and most highly studied reef systems in the world, there is still a lot to learn about under the surface of the GBRMP. Clocking in at 344,000 square kilometers, there is a lot of space to explore. While waters closer to the Australian coastline have an average depth of 35 meters, the farther edges of the marine park can stretch as deep as 2000 meters at its underwater continental slopes. Here, there was room for new discoveries, in the deepest parts of the marine park. The Schmidt Ocean Institute, founded in 2009 by Eric and Wendy Schmidt to further advance oceanographic research, spearheaded the robotic dives this summer in Australia. 

Scientists from several institutions teamed up to conquer 18 robotic dives over the course of a  month-long expedition. The research vessel Falkor, from the Schmidt Ocean Institute, was the  transportation star for the team. For more information about R/V Falkor, including the ship’s current location, as well as real-time weather and seawater conditions below the ship, visit this link

What did they find? 

Dr. Brendan Brooke, one of the lead scientists on the expedition, is quoted as saying that this trip was the “…most comprehensive midwater robotic dive survey series to ever have been conducted in the South Pacific.”  The group was able to discover new species inhabiting the depths of the park, as well as take abiotic measurements (such as water temperature, pressure, light levels, etc) of the environment in the deep water. Some of their notable achievements include:

  • The first sighting of Rhinopias agroliba, a rare predatory scorpionfish, in Australian waters 
  • The deepest samples of soft and Schleractinian (stony) corals ever taken in the Coral Sea 
  • The most comprehensive survey of midwater jellyfish in the South Pacific 
  • The first ever sample of ancient bedrock taken from below the Great Barrier Reef, which is estimated to be between 40 and 50 million years old 
  • A high resolution map of 38,395 square kilometers of the seafloor in the GBRMP
  • Changes in light, pressure, and temperature as the remote controlled robot moved through a gradient of habitats 
  • The discovery of five new species, including black corals and sponges 
Fig. 1 A Rhinopias agroliba uses its pectoral fins to “walk” along the seafloor near the Great Barrier Reef. This sighting was out of the previously known range for these fish and thus set a new record for the rare species in Australia. Photo courtesy of the Schmidt Ocean Institute. 
Fig. 2 A robotic arm grasps a sample of black coral growing from a nautilus shell, found at 550 meters depth. Researchers plan to sequence the DNA of the sample to determine which family the newly-discovered black coral most closely resembles. Photo courtesy of Schmidt Ocean Institute.
Fig. 3 An octopus is spotted 1200 meters (nearly 4000 feet) down, along the seafloor on the expedition. This image was captured through a high resolution camera, using the remote controlled robotic arm that was used for diving. Photo courtesy of the Schmidt Ocean Institute.

The road ahead 

Researchers on the expedition hope that their prolific findings will have a multifaceted benefit to the GBRMP. With a better understanding of the species located in the park, conservation efforts can be adjusted accordingly for the inhabitants of the deep regions of the park. The findings are also intended to give scientists a better understanding of the relationship between the seabed and the animals that live in the GBRMP. The discoveries made during this month-long trip are expected to “keep scientists busy for years” as they work to further uncover the geological and biological origins of the Great Barrier Reef system. 

In case you missed the live stream of 112 hours of high-resolution footage captured for the deep water expedition, you can visit the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s YouTube channel for highlight videos of what the ocean is like 1800 meters below the GBRMP surface. You can also visit the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s article about the expedition to hear more about the information provided here on the topic. 

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