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Conservation

The Data: Research dives in the Sargasso Sea result in the discovery of new species and confirms new ocean zone

Project Baseline’s collaboration with The Nekton Mission, GlobalSubDive, GUE divers, and scientists from Stanford and Oxford Universities on the 2016 XL Catlin Deep Ocean Survey and shallow water research may be one of organization’s most fruitful projects to date. The project has yielded nine scientific papers, the discovery of over 100 new species, and the confirmation of the newly discovered rariphotic zone, an ocean zone from 400-1,000 ft/130-300 m deep. Dive into some awe-inspiring data!

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By Amanda White

Bermuda is located in the northwestern Sargasso Sea, about 600 miles east of the closest point of the United States (North Carolina). In 2016, Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) collaborated with Global SubDive (GSD) and The Nekton Mission to conduct the XL Catlin Deep Ocean Survey and shallow underwater research using a team of GUE technical CCR divers and two Triton three-man submersibles around the main island of Bermuda. During the project, GUE volunteer divers and the submersible pilots established 92 Project Baseline stations total at the five dive sites. They also teamed with scientists from several universities, including Oxford and Stanford. Over the 30-day mission, five sites were explored and documented between 15-300 m/49-984 ft; the submersibles were deployed at 300, 200, and 150 meters and volunteer divers at 90, 60, 30, and 15 meters. Data was collected in the form of water samples, stereo video transects, specimen collection, and photographs.

Since the data collection efforts back in 2016, nine scientific papers have been written from the data collected. The papers range in topics from lionfish invading the upper-bathyal zone in the western Atlantic, to the black coral fauna of Bermuda and more. One of the biggest contributions from the mission was the the confirmation of the Rariphotic Zone, a new ocean zone from 130-300 m/400-1,000 ft.


Diver JP Bresser and one of the submersibles during the 2016 XL Catlin Deep Ocean Survey. Image by Graham Blackmore.

The zones are the Altiphotic (0-40 m), Mesophotic (40-130 m), Rariphotic (130-300 m), and the Bathyal zone (300-3000 m).This new zone was first discovered by scientists from the Smithsonian Institute, but the existence was confirmed by the data collected in Bermuda with the discovery of over 100 new species. These include very small animals such as tanaids, dozens of new algae species, larger animals such as black wire coral that can stand up to 2 m high, and at least 13 new crustacean species.

An article on the  Science Alert website states that: “This [discovery] has led to a hypothesis that the new rariphotic zone may be a refuge for shallower reef fishes seeking respite from the warming waters and coral deterioration caused by climate change.” The discovery and confirmation of this zone is the missing link in understanding the dynamics between the different light zones in the ocean.

The team of volunteer divers collecting data during the 2016 mission to document the health of the ocean around the island of Bermuda. Photo by JP Bresser.

In a press release from Nekton, Alex Rogers, former Scientific Director of the Nekton Oxford Deep Ocean Research Institute (“Nekton”) and Professor of Conservation Biology at the University of Oxford, believes this discovery challenges current assumptions of biodiversity of life patterns. “Life in the shallower regions of the deep sea is so poorly documented it undermines confidence in our existing understanding of how the patterns of life change with depth,” says Professor Rogers.

The tremendous scale of the Project Baseline data collection effort has helped scientists to better understand the state of our oceans, create research protocols, and create an identification guide for biologists, divers, and naturalists. This was all based on the collection and analysis of 40,000 specimens and samples, 15,000 liters of water samples, 240 video transects, and 92 miles of geophysical data, some of which can be seen on Project Baseline’s spatial database and on their YouTube Channel.

This mission in Bermuda, along with the 2017 mission in Fiji, demonstrates how a coordinated team of divers and submersibles can significantly contribute to the scientific studies of both the shallow and deep aquatic environments by collecting massive quantities of usable data.

Header image by: JP Bresser. Dr. Todd Kincaid captures a video transect for scientists to study the health of the Sargasso Sea.


Amanda White is the editor for InDepth. Her main passion in life is protecting the environment. Whether that means working to minimize her own footprint or working on a broader scale to protect wildlife, the oceans, and other bodies of water. She received her GUE Recreational Level 1 certificate in November 2016 and is ecstatic to begin her scuba diving journey. Amanda was a volunteer for Project Baseline for over a year as the communications lead during Baseline Explorer missions. Now she manages communication between Project Baseline and the public and works as the content and marketing manager for GUE. Amanda holds a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism, with an emphasis in Strategic Communications from the University of Nevada, Reno.

Conservation

WWII WRECKS – A TOXIC LEGACY?

Maritime archeologist Matt Carter discusses what brought him to Chuuk Lagoon and his quest to call attention to the oil leaking from WWII shipwrecks, the focus of the Major Projects Foundation, where he serves as Research Director. The foundation was created with the goal of working with Pacific nations to protect their marine ecosystems from potential oil spills from WWII shipwrecks, and is currently working to determine determining how much oil the ships lost in the Asia-Pacific region still hold. Previously a team of international experts calculated the amount of oil to be anywhere between 150 million and 1.2 billion gallons.

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Header image by Steve Trewavas. The port propeller of the Rio de Janeiro Maru clearly showing the huge scale of the shipwreck.

Maritime archeologist Matt Carter discusses what brought him to Chuuk Lagoon and his quest to call attention to the oil leaking from WWII shipwrecks, the focus of the  Major Projects Foundation (MPF), where he serves as Research Director. The foundation was created with the goal of working with Pacific nations to protect their marine ecosystems from oil spills from WWII shipwrecks.

What many people know is that between 1939 and 1945, the Japanese military and the Allied powers fought an increasingly bloody war through South-East Asia and out across the Pacific Ocean. What fewer people know is that this maritime war saw the loss of some 3800 ships which sank, taking with them their crew, cargoes, and in some cases huge volumes of toxic heavy fuel oil. 

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A volunteer cleaning oil spilled from the wreck of the MV Wakashio in August 2020. (Photo: Shutterstock)

One of the questions that Carter is asked frequently is how much oil could these ships possibly still be holding today? In 2005, a team of international experts came together to answer just that question. Searching through archives for information on these potentially polluting shipwrecks (PPW), they calculated that combined, all of the ships lost in the Asia-Pacific Region could possibly still hold anywhere between 150 million and 1.2 billion gallons of oil!

MPF was established in 2018. After signing a memorandum of understanding with the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), the foundation began reviewing and prioritizing the 3800 WWII shipwrecks sunk in the Asia-Pacific Region, resulting in a priority list of 55 PPW deemed to be the highest environmental risk. Seventeen of these wrecks are located in the world-famous diving Mecca of Chuuk Lagoon in the Federated States of Micronesia.

One of the key tools that the foundation used for investigating the condition of the PPW in Chuuk was photogrammetry, a process where a wreck is scanned by divers taking thousands of overlapping photos which are then run through a 3D software program. The main focus of this photogrammetry work was the wreck of the Rio de Janiero Maru, as oil leaks from the wreck were thought to have impacted nearby mangroves in 2008. Over multiple dives, the foundation surveyed and scanned the shipwreck taking 7350 photos and three hours of video. This was the first time that any of the wrecks in Chuuk Lagoon had been recorded in this way resulting in the 3D model shown below. 

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3D model of the 140-metre-long Rio de Janeiro Maru. The model comprises 7,350 high-resolution images Photo Dr. Matt Carter/Major Projects Foundation

From this survey, Carter was able to create a baseline condition assessment of the Rio de Janeiro Maru including a hull integrity assessment that has allowed for a more accurate estimation of the amount of oil that may remain inside the wreck. This information was subsequently incorporated into a ‘Likelihood of Oil Release’ assessment providing MPF and the Chuukese authorities with a greater understanding of the potential threat that this wreck poses.

The survey of the Rio de Janeiro Maru has shown what can be achieved through the combination of marine archaeology, technical diving, and photogrammetry. However, this is only the first of the 55 potentially polluting wrecks throughout the Pacific that MPF and its partners urgently need to assess in order to mitigate the impact that these ticking ecological time bombs will have on the people and marine ecosystems of the region. 

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