The great wonders beyond the great reef

What is in the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, in the Coral Sea? The region was mostly unexplored and unexplored until a recent expedition searched its dark waters, discovering an abundance of life, bizarre geological features, and spectacular deep corals. The deepest incursions reached more than a mile.

The expedition was organized by the Schmidt Ocean Institute, founded by Eric Schmidt, the former president of Google, and his wife, Wendy. Its centerpiece was a ship, almost the length of a soccer field, that could map the remote seafloor with sound beams and deploy autonomous, tethered robots to capture close-up images of the ink depths.

“It blew us away,” said Robin Beaman of James Cook University, chief scientist of the expedition, in an interview. “We have gone from literally knowing nothing to knowing a lot.”

An earlier stage of the expedition found a gelatinous creature whose length was estimated to be 150 feet, potentially the world’s longest example of ocean life.

The Coral Sea is located in northeast Australia, adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef, and includes a large protected area known as the Coral Sea Marine Park. The investigation of its depths ran from late April to mid-June. In an apparent global prime, the expedition was carried out remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic. A team of eight Australian scientists worked from their homes and wirelessly connected to the Falkor research vessel at the Schmidt Institute. The setup allowed them to direct, in concert with the ship’s crew, the mapping as well as the live video feed from a tethered robot, opening the dark chasm to human eyes.

Dr. Beaman said the deal drove him a little crazy because he couldn’t do household chores and savor underwater wonders.

“I would be washing dishes and I want to go back,” he recalled. “I would call my family and say, ‘Hey, look at this, look at these beautiful images.’ There would be a nautilus floating up and down or a deep-sea squid flying across the screen.

The region’s thriving population of nautilus was a big surprise, Dr. Beaman said. The creature is a living fossil whose ancestors date back half a trillion years, to the first days of complex life on the planet, when the seas were warm. The logarithmic spiral of the animal’s mother-of-pearl shell echoes the curved arms of distant galaxies, and its beauty has made the nautilus a prized commodity, with some of its populations decimated by hunting and capture. Marine biologists have debated whether the creature should be listed as an endangered species.

“They were everywhere, reeling,” said Dr. Beaman of the nautilus. “They are really beautiful animals to look at.” The expedition, he added, had explored a protected area hundreds of miles off the coast of Australia. The remoteness of civilization helped safeguard the inhabitants of the area and probably explained why the Nautilus population was booming.

In total, the expedition mapped more than 13,000 square miles of seafloor, an area larger than Massachusetts, and transformed unknown waters into carefully assessed realms of the Australian marine desert. Most coastal nations do not have research vessels, and therefore have little ability to explore the sunless depths of their own backyards.

Dr. Beaman said another surprise was the stark complexity of the deep seabed around the region’s 30 great coral atolls and shoals. The expedition found submarine canyons, dune fields, submerged reefs, and massive landslides.

“We had no idea what these steep flanks looked like,” he said. “We were amazed. There is a lot of evidence of underwater landslides, some probably millions of years old. You could see that, as the reefs have grown, large, large parts of them have collapsed. ”

The team also found the deepest live hard corals in eastern Australian waters and identified up to 10 new species of fish, snails and sponges.

In the interview, Dr. Beaman noted that the expedition’s discovery process had only just begun; More and more circles of scientists and students were beginning to examine new maps of the seafloor and video recordings of the days of the robot’s deep-sea dives.

“The images will be worked on for years,” he said. “It was an incredible experience.”

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