December 18, 2018

Jason Mundy and Emily Harris
Jason Mundy and Emily Harris of Parks Australia. Image: Fraser Johnston/CSIRO
Emily Harris of Parks Austrtalia
Emily helps to process water samples collected by the conductivity temperature and depth (CTD) profiler. Image: CSIRO

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Day 26: Emily Harris, Parks Australia

I’m feeling like the luckiest marine park manager this side of Christmas to be joining the RV Investigator team and in this, the 3rd International Year of the Reef, it seems very appropriate to be taking a closer look at the deep-sea corals that cling to Tasmania’s seamounts.

I’ve spent the past three weeks tracking the adventures of my Parks Australia colleagues but finally, last Saturday it was my turn! Joined by my boss, Jason Mundy, we jumped onboard. Passing Blackmans Bay, I gave a little wave to my family and soon we were steaming past the Iron Pot on our way up to a major seamount off St Helens. Unlike some of the protected seamounts the team have been surveying in Huon Marine Park, this seamount continues to be fished and is an important site for the South-east Trawl Fishery. St Helens Hill rises to 600 metres below the surface: a majestic carbonate pinnacle that is home to octocorals, bamboo corals, brisingid seastars, urchins, sponges, stalked crinoids and the occasional crab.

I work as an assistant director in marine protected area management. Our team manages both the Temperate East and the South-east marine parks networks, including the Freycinet, Flinders, Huon and Tasman Fracture marine parks. This is my first scientific voyage, and my main role has been processing images from the deep-tow camera, a fastidious process that has taught me how much unseen effort goes into research. I was lucky enough to draw the early shift – clock-in time 2am – and processing in the early hours certainly adds another dimension to the job. Since we’ve been at St Helens seamount, we’ve completed six deep-tow camera transects, mostly on the main seamount, but one on a smaller, deeper side hill (1156 m). Interestingly, the team has noticed a different composition in the stony coral community here. No one is quite sure why, but I for one am intrigued.


Jason Mundy with a blobfish
Assistant Secretary of the Marine Protected Areas Branch in the Parks Australia Division, Jason Mundy, meets a blobfish, one of the species he has the job of protecting in Australian Marine Parks. Image: Parks Australia/CSIRO

I’ve also been lucky enough to help with sorting the beam-trawl hauls. Every sample is a veritable Santa’s sack of marine critters brought up from the deep. The idea that each haul might contain new species never seen before continues to blow my mind! Did I mention the 2 am start? Well, some music to sing along to helped keep us all awake! I’ve also had the chance to help process water samples collected by the conductivity temperature and depth (CTD) profiler. Science often involves lots of repetitive sampling and strict attention to every little detail. I’m grateful to all those who have been teaching and instructing me with such patience and good humour.

In fact, the whole crew has been fantastic and I really feel as though I’ve gone back to the classroom, but in the best way possible. I am surrounded by some of the many scientists whose work helps inform the management of Australian Marine Parks and it is an honour to be among marine science royalty.

As the sun sets, we’ll turn and head for home for Hobart. Spirits are high and the mood is celebratory. This has been a remarkably successful voyage that has seen us survey 45 seamounts, complete 147 transects covering 200 kilometres, collect 60,000 stereo images and record more than 300 hours of video. What a phenomenal contribution to advancing our understanding of this remote part of the world.

four-lobed anemone on the seafloor at St Helens seamount
Four-lobed anemones on the seafloor at St Helen's seamount. Image: CSIRO
Workign with the conductivity temperature depth profiler
Scientists work with the conductivity temperature and depth profiler. Image: Bethany Green/CSIRO
Professor Nic Bax
Marine Biodiversity Hub Director and dedicated daily survey reporter, Professor Nic Bax.

Notes on today's activities from Marine Biodiversity Hub Director, Nic Bax . . .

There was a moment in the wee hours of morning when it appeared that the ship had been taken over by Zombies, but it was just biologists still on their feet after 20 hours as they sorted the last and very substantial and diverse beam trawl catch. It might seem like a difficult decision, whether to go to bed or work, but the opportunity to see animals that they might never get the chance to see again proved too much, so fortified with caffeine and Iggy Pop, they persevered. Even before this final trawl, the biologists have processed material from 24 deployments, identifying 19,637 specimens, representing 528 distinct taxa and retained 821kg of material for transfer back to museums around Australia. Over 200 of the taxa are undescribed and others are new records for Tasmania or Australia. And some taxa were numerous including several brittlestar specimens with ~1600 and ~1000 individuals, all of which had to be identified and sorted.

Not to be outdone, two exhausted bird and mammal (or perhaps its mammal and bird) watchers climbed down from their eyrie, glassy-eyed after 390 hours spent staring at the sea, during which time they had over 61,000 sighting records of 44 bird species and 8 marine mammals. And they still had enough energy left to help the biologists with their catch.

Meanwhile deep towed camera transects on St Helens and Paddy's Head were completed making a total of 56 high quality video transects from peak to base for seven seamounts plus some spares. And to provide additional context, 38 smaller seamounts were imaged at least once. Altogether we completed 147 successful transects, covering over 200 kilometers of seafloor and amassed more than 60,000 stereo image pairs and 300 hours of video. As is the case for all our science on board, collecting is only the first stage in a much longer process of processing, analysis, writing and communication, which will take place over the next two years.

We have been fortunate to have the assistance of so many dedicated people including students and our colleagues from Parks Australia to help start processing the imagery that we have been collecting. They have already processed almost two hundred hours of video and the images from over half the operations so we have a good start on next year’s image processing for next year. Our taxonomic specialists and students on board have also started to classify and preserve their chosen taxa, but for many of the specimens collected it might be a decade or more until the only person worldwide with the specific taxa expertise has the time and funds to look at the samples we have collected.

And supporting these teams of researchers have been other scientists taking water samples, catching eels, deploying the BRUVs. There have been technicians and ship’s crew keeping the vessel and scientific working through the expected and unexpected challenges, and of course the catering staff serving three cooked meals a day – we were lucky that there is some exercise equipment on board.

In addition to the livestreamed video from the ship that over 5500 people have streamed, our dedicated video and camera crew have taken thousands of scientific and informational images and several terabytes of video. So expect to see some more imagery over the next few days and weeks: more than you would have already seen on the Hub's facebook page.


And so at 17:00 in the afternoon we started our 148th and final deep camera tow – and it was a surprise. The transect started innocently enough with some Solenosmilia at the peak of the chosen hill at the top of Riedel canyon in the Freycinet Marine Park, turning into what was looking like a long period of sandwaves. But just as talk was turning to the post-voyage debrief, the sandwaves built up and hardened, the Solenosmilia coral matrix reappeared, and it continued to at least 1450m, one of our deeper observations. But in this instance the coral matrix appeared only on one side of the elevated ridges, possibly the one facing into the current, showing us that we still have more to learn about these amazing, colourful and biologically diverse deepwater communities.


Voyage date: 
Tuesday, December 18, 2018