OpinionFlourishing Oceans01 Feb 2022

Launch of Minderoo-UWA Deep-Sea Research Centre reveals the world in the deep east Indian Ocean

The Minderoo-UWA Deep-Sea Research Centre has been established to explore deep-sea areas of the east Indian Ocean.

A world-leading research centre pushing the boundaries of frontier exploration and science in the deep sea has been officially launched in Perth by Minderoo Foundation Chairman, Dr Andrew Forrest AO, and The University of Western Australia Vice-Chancellor, Professor Amit Chakma.

The Minderoo-UWA Deep-Sea Research Centre has been established through a major five-year grant from Minderoo Foundation’s Flourishing Oceans initiative. Its mission is to explore the submerged earth fractures of the east Indian Ocean, six kilometres below the surface, known as the hadal zone.

Never-before-seen footage released from the first expedition to the Wallaby-Zenith Fracture Zone off the midwest coast of WA in the eastern Indian Ocean, outside Australian waters, reveals some big surprises according to the Centre’s Founding Director – world renowned biologist, engineer, adventurer, explorer and author, Professor Alan Jamieson.

“It is fascinating, it’s like another world,” Professor Jamieson said.

“On the very bottom it is soft white sand but there were a lot of animals, it is very diverse and then along the escarpment, which is a 600-mile-long wall, about 2000 metres high, there were things there I still don’t understand. It’s going to take a long time to unpack it in terms of what’s going on geologically.”

The centre is the vision of Dr Forrest, whose own PhD research focused heavily on the biodiversity of the Indian Ocean’s Perth Canyon and its ecological importance. Dr Forrest said the deep sea held the key to unlocking many of the questions about life on earth in terms of biodiversity, ocean processes such as currents and circulation, and human impacts, including climate change.

“We need to consider the ocean as one big body of water,” Dr Forrest said. “We know a lot about the top 2000 metres and then as you get deeper, our understanding becomes less and less. It’s Minderoo Foundation’s aim to fill in the gaps for that deepest 50 per cent of the ocean so we can better understand how to treat the ocean as a whole and understand what it is telling us about the pressure we are putting on it.”

The Indian Ocean is the world’s third-largest ocean spanning 70,560,000 km² and accounting for 19.5 per cent of the world’s ocean area. With an average depth of almost 4000m, it is the least understood of the world’s five named oceans and very little is known about marine fauna and species at its depths.

UWA Vice-Chancellor Professor Amit Chakma welcomed the investment in deep-sea research.

“UWA is proud to support this important collaboration contributing to much-needed research in one of the most unexplored parts of the world,” Professor Chakma said.

“It aims to comprehensively explore the deepest areas of the Indian Ocean – mapping the ocean floor, and characterising and discovering new fauna and marine species.”

Expeditions

The Minderoo-UWA Deep-Sea Research Centre has already completed a major expedition to the east Indian Ocean. It led the DSSV Pressure Drop on a one-month long campaign to the Wallaby-Zenith Fracture Zone, Wallaby-Cuvier Escarpment, Perth Canyon and the North Australian Basin in April-May 2021. There, researchers mapped these extraordinarily deep features, participated in 14 dives in the full ocean depth submersible DSV Limiting Factor, and completed 25 deployments of baited camera lander vehicles. Alan Jamieson led six of those dives to waters as deep at 6591m.

The results of that expedition include mapping the deep-sea biodiversity inhabiting both deep undersea volcanoes, the deepest parts of the fracture zone and the near-vertical walls of the abyssal escarpment and surveying what turned out to be a significant manganese nodule field at 4000-6000m depth.

In 2022, the centre is planning an expedition to the Diamantina Fracture Zone and Perth Canyon (March) as well as re-joining the DSSV Pressure Drop to dive in the deepest trenches around Japan in the North Pacific (June-July).

Science

In the first six months the centre has published various findings from a recent expedition including a global census of all fishes deeper than 5000m, plus the deepest-ever recorded squid, and a description of the fauna and habitats of the deepest places in Antarctica. It also has studies documenting large-scale seafloor disturbance at the deepest shipwreck ever found (The USS Johnston, a WWII destroyer sunk by the Japanese in the Battle off Samar) and its implications for deep-sea mining, deep ocean microbial studies on plastic contamination, and several studies relating to global genetic connectivity of some of the deepest animals in the world.

Technology

The centre is in the final stages of completing the construction of three new full ocean depth lander vehicles. These landers are equipped with baited imaging systems, collection devices and environmental monitoring sensors. The lander can operate to depths of 11,000m.

There are also plans to design and construct long-term sustainable observatories to be deployed at the base of the Perth canyon and another marine park off the WA coast. These observatories will operate for 6 to 12 months to monitor various ecological processes over long periods of time in some of the deepest areas off WA.

Minderoo Foundation
by Minderoo Foundation

Established by Andrew and Nicola Forrest in 2001, we are a modern philanthropic organisation seeking to break down barriers, innovate and drive positive, lasting change. Minderoo Foundation is proudly Australian, with eight key initiatives spanning from ocean research and ending slavery, to collaboration in cancer and community projects.

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