As the remote camera gear slipped through the thrashing surface of the Ross Sea on the first tow of the first survey day in February 2008, scientists could only speculate as to what they might find—it is probably the most remote and least understood tract of ocean on the planet, and this was deeper and farther south than they had ever surveyed before. They had a formidable arsenal of tools at their disposal—new imaging technologies and state-of-the-art collection sleds to reveal the clearest picture of this environment yet. The expedition was a collaborative effort between NIWA and Te Papa and also part of a massive international effort, the Census of Antarctic Marine Life (CAML), described as one of the most important pieces of research currently being undertaken in the world.
The monitors flashed to life in the small lab on the main deck of the Tangaroa, and the lights on the camera tethered 500 m beneath illuminated the gloom. A dozen scientists, packed like sardines in a tin, leaned forward, squinting at the unremarkable darkness on the closed-circuit television screen. A vast bed of sponges appeared, and then life in profusion. Life, but not as we know it.
Reef-building Bryozoans and gorgonian corals, huge glass sponges and swimming feather stars filled the lens, interspersed with bizarre-looking sea cucumbers and giant starfish—all quietly, diligently going about their business.
As the scientists moved further north to the Scott seamounts, the sea life changed. There were fields of half-metre-tall sea lilies bent like date palms in the wind—these were abundant in the world’s oceans during the Palaeozoic period, and crinoids of this size and density are not known to exist anywhere else on the planet today. Delicate hydroids spun in the current like whirling dervishes, their satin tentacles fishing for nutrients in the darkness like a million sticky fingers.
“All of us were gobsmacked,” says Stuart Hanchet, lead scientist on the project. “It was the first time we had used video of that quality and seen such an amazing array of benthic fauna just drifting under the camera.”
Within days, NIWA researchers had scooped up a species of deepwater octopus new to science, a chiton more like a military tank than a crustacean, and a brilliant pink amphipod that had never been seen before. “It was the sheer abundance of invertebrate life that was most exciting,” says Hanchet. “You had the feeling that you were looking at a pristine environment.”
Much of the Ross Sea is a shelf 400–600 m deep, but there are shallow banks as well as profound troughs that descend 1200 m into the blackness. Further north lies the steep continental slope dropping down to abyssal depths interspersed with seamounts. It is this diversity of habitat that generates the diversity of marine fauna.
A deep-sea slater, striated by brown ridges like a flounder caught in a panini grill, brittle stars with 400 “arms” instead of five, and grotesque lumps of goop called sea pigs reminiscent of inflated surgical gloves were plucked from the depths by a benthic sled and delivered, still flapping, to the on-board lab. This was spine-tingling science, as close to the frontier as the work of Joseph Banks 240 years ago and, arguably, just as important.
Many of the new species are small crustaceans, which are abundant in the Antarctic marine environment and are such a large component of the food chain that they determine the health of the entire ecosystem.
As one of only two “embayments” on the continent (the other being the Weddell Sea), and with unique underwater features, the Ross Sea is an important habitat for Antarctic marine life and “exports” large quantities of biomass into the surrounding Southern Ocean either by natural dispersal or as food for baleen whales, seals and penguins. The cold, saline waters of Antarctica literally fall down the continental slope, creating deep currents of oxygenated water which flow north to feed the largest oceans of the world, passing on the nutrient wealth of the Ross Sea and adjoining regions to the benefit of the marine ecosystems of the entire planet.
Three years of analysis is yet to come, which will make sense of the apparent madness beneath the ice. The research is focused on finding regions of exceptional biodiversity, on trying to understand which eats what, and on establishing baseline data so we have some idea of the abundance of species. These are the very first steps in understanding the basic functioning of the Antarctic marine environment and will help scientists with more complex tasks such as predicting the impact of climate change or the effect of fishing—such as the now well-established fishery for Antarctic toothfish, which is reaching its catch limits of 3000 tonnes a year from the Ross Sea.
“If you remove a predator from an ecosystem, or at least reduce the population, what’s the effect on the rest of the ecosystem? Until we understand the basics we can’t know,” says Hanchet. “The more we know about biological processes, what lives where and why, the more we can identify the important areas and protect them.”
The voyage of NIWA’s Tangaroa into the Ross Sea in 2008, and subsequent research into the bounty it retrieved, cost the New Zealand taxpayer $6.6 million.
Of the 16,000 species of marine life identified in New Zealand waters, we commercially harvest just 130 of them, a total fishery worth $3.8 billion every year. So what’s the discovery of a new species of amphipod worth to New Zealanders? Probably nothing. But what value do you put on understanding the biodiversity of Antarctica, one of the most important hubs of marine biomass on our blue planet? Pick a number; millions, perhaps billions. And if you believe the ecologists, it may be priceless.
Unidentified genus of Callipallenidae family
Unidentified squid (juvenile)
Mesonycchoteuthis hamiltoni (juvenile)
Unidentified porponian of Prinnoidae family
Unidentified siphonophora of Rhodalidae family
Unidentified anenome of Actiniarian order
Unidentified genus of Pennatulacean order
Unidentified genus of Polynoidie family
Unidentified genus of Polynoidie family
Unidentified genus of Paleonemertean order
Bathyplotes moseleyi (sea cucumber)
Unidentified sea stars of Porcellanasteridae family