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Exploring mysteries of the deep

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A tiny fish discovered in Bermuda’s deep water as part of the Nekton MissionPhotograph by Akil Simmons

Scientists often tell us we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the bottom of our oceans but Bermuda is at the heart of a mission that intends to change that.

More than 200 samples and specimens including black coral never before recorded in Bermuda and a starfish that has only ever been seen once close to 100 years ago are among the secrets dug up from the depths of our ocean as part of the Nekton Mission’s XL Catlin Deep Ocean Survey.

Working alongside scientists from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Nekton’s experts are back on the island following their deepwater expedition this summer to begin the extensive process of sorting through the specimens collected while gathering physical, chemical and biological data.

The deep ocean survey is designed to create a standardised methodology for marine biologists to assess “the function, health and resilience of the deep ocean”.

The team used groundbreaking technology including 360 degree view Triton submersibles, science ships and remotely operated vehicles as well as mobile technical divers in the waters of Bermuda between July and August as well as missions in Canada and the Sargasso Sea.

During their time in Bermuda they hit depths of over 1,000 feet, taking in areas including Argus and Challenger Banks.

The Royal Gazette accompanied Nekton’s principal scientist Lucy Woodall, as well as curator for the Bermuda Natural History Museum Dr Robbie Smith and world-renowned expert on black coral identification Daniel Wagner at the Bermuda Natural History Museum yesterday as they began the process of sifting through our most bountiful deep ocean catch to date.

They are working in collaboration with some of the world’s top ocean scientists from esteemed institutions including The Smithsonian Museums, Oxford University and London’s Natural History Museum to help identify the species.

While it is too early to say whether any undiscovered species were found on Bermuda’s ocean floor, the mission has found about six types of black coral never recorded here before, a brittle starfish that scientists are still attempting to identify, as well as a type of starfish — the Copidaster schismochilus — that was only ever seen in the 1920s.

Dr Woodall told The Royal Gazette: “The majority of organisms we observed stayed in the water and we will use the photographs and video to help answer some of the questions in the XL Catlin Deep Ocean Survey.

“We have photographs of them in the water so we can refer those to the video and photographs of them as soon as they came out of the water and photographs of them now after they have been preserved.

“Finding the starfish [Copidaster schismochilus] was really exciting because it was collected from one site — north-northeast just by St George’s and it’s only the second time it has ever been seen before scientifically. The other one came from Challenger Bank. It is probably endemic to Bermuda and we saw from the video that it is really common.

“My colleagues from the Smithsonian did work on this and were able to give us a fantastic identification through the photographs.”

As for the brittle starfish, scientists continue research into whether it has been previously discovered.

Dr Woodall added: “We are very interested in these starfish — it might very well be a new species or certainly something that hasn’t been recorded here before. You have to go through a lot of steps and make sure that you check it against everything else that has previously been recorded. That will then go into scientific literature into a peer review process.”

Other organisms that came up included tiny juvenile fish including a sargassum fish, hard corals, desmosponges, octocorals and volcanic rock.

Before the mission in Bermuda, six types of black coral were known to live in Bermuda but through the ocean survey that figure has now doubled.

Speaking on the discovery, Dr Wagner said: “I assume the same will be true with other groups.

“People tend to think of the deep seas as void of life but the more we look and know where to look, we find there is a lot of life.

“Missions like this one adds to the value of these places as important reservoirs of biodiversity. When you are thinking about conservation ideally you want to protect an area where there is a lot of biodiversity. Nekton is going around the entire world looking at different parts of the ocean across the continents trying to find these patterns where we have the real hotspots and most species — what are the most important areas on earth to protect.”

Speaking on the benefits for Bermuda, Dr Smith, who was able to go on two submersible dives on Triton, added: “It gives us a better sense of what makes up our reef system. We discovered that some animals we see in shallow water move down into deep water. We can see a lot more about what these habitats look like. As interesting as it is to know what all these dead specimens are, I think the real value will come out when we see the data from the video records and also our personal experience.”

Dr Woodall said she believed initial reports from the mission will come out as soon as June next year, giving a timely response to the data. She said: “If we can get this working it is a massive step change in how we do ocean science. It is not unusual for me to be looking at papers and specimens from ten years ago. It is so difficult to get into the deep sea and there are a lot of logistics involved. Having the opportunity to pull that all together with world experts and getting it out there quickly is really important to understanding our oceans.”

The starfish Copidaster schismochilus is examined by Dr Lucy Woodall and Dr Robbie SmithPhotograph supplied
Daniel Wagner, black coral specialistPhotograph by Akil Simmons
The starfish Copidaster schismochilusPhotograph supplied.