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Finding Strange New Life – and Human Garbage – in an Unexplored Abyss

Scientist Tim O’Hara and an international research team made worldwide headlines when they returned from a deep-sea expedition with bizarre species that live at the bottom of the ocean off Australia.

Written by Ian Evans Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Coffinfish web asher flatt
This coffinfish is a small species of angler fish. Researchers are not sure yet whether this particular species is new to science.Asher Flatt

In 2012, the Australian government declared that it would create the world’s largest network of marine reserves by more than doubling protected ocean areas to 1.2 million square miles (3.1 million square km). Although the final plans for many of the reserves have not yet been released, the declaration provided a scientific opportunity to explore these offshore areas and the creatures that live there.

Earlier this year, Tim O’Hara, senior curator of marine invertebrates at Museums Victoria, led an international group of researchers aboard the research vessel the Investigator to the unexplored deep ocean off eastern Australia. The team worked 12 hour days for a month, collecting species from depths of about 13,000ft (4,000m). Their expedition made headlines around the world when they returned from the abyss with strange species like the faceless fish and the coffinfish.

Oceans Deeply spoke with O’Hara about the expedition, the discovery of new marine life and what it is like for scientists to suddenly be in the media spotlight.

Oceans Deeply: How did this expedition come together and why did you decide to explore this particular area of ocean floor?

Tim O’Hara: OK, so Australia has a blue water research vessel called the Investigator, and it was commissioned in 2014. Once we got the new ship for the first time, we had enough wire to actually deploy gear past about 3,000m. So, for six months of the year you can apply for ship time through a competitive process, nationally. So, not in the first round, but in the second round, we were successful. Basically, what we said in the application, which was a collaboration between lots of different marine science institutions in Australia, was that “hey, we’ve never been able to actually look at our abyssal environment, and the abyss is greater in area than the land of Australia and yet we know absolutely nothing about it.”

We’ve got a whole lot of new marine reserves in offshore areas, and we know absolutely nothing about what occurs there or even in some cases the topology of the seafloor. In a sense, it was an easy application to write because the time was right, we had the equipment and a lot of people were really keen to join in.

Oceans Deeply: Maybe the most famous thing about this expedition so far is the creatures that you came back with, which I think it’s fair to say went viral on the internet.

O’Hara: Yeah, yeah, they did. It’s pretty amazing, really. We put up a lot of photos, and some photos just really capture the imagination. One was the faceless fish, just because it does seem to have such a rounded, featureless head. So, yeah, that certainly captured people’s imaginations.

We were on everything from late-night comedy shows to serious scientific shows. But it was good in some ways. People have asked me, “Are you upset that it wasn’t more science-y, that people are focusing on the bizarre and the unusual?” But I think, really, when you want to communicate the excitement of being onboard, that’s exactly what the scientists are thinking, you know?

But of course, the scientists are collecting thousands and thousands of data points and we will analyze that over the next year or so. That’s a long-term story that will come out, but in the meantime we wanted just to convey the excitement of discovery – it’s like, “Gee, wow, look at this thing.” We did want to communicate that to the public.

This faceless fish was found off New South Wales, 13,000ft (4,000m) deep. (John Pogonoski, CSIRO Australian National Fish Collection)

Oceans Deeply: What was it like bringing these bizarre new species onboard – do you have any particular moments that you remember?

O’Hara: Well, you tend to remember the tough moments, perhaps – sometimes we brought half a ton of mud up, and then you just know that you have seven or eight hours of sort of back-breaking sieving of all this mud. Normally the catch is a lot cleaner than that. There’s highs and lows. It was tough but on the other case you would see truly remarkable animals.

We had equipment that could actually bring stuff up in really good condition so that we could take all the small crustaceans with all their antennae and things. That’s just extraordinary. In the past, in historical expeditions, they’d been brought up all battered up, but we managed to bring them up in really good condition, so that was pretty exciting.

Oceans Deeply: I assume you are going through those species now?

O’Hara: Well, we’ve only been back for a week and [the species] are still on [trucks]. But we’re expecting them any day now. I think we’ll come out with some nice publications soon. We’re also doing a lot of genomic work, so we can age-difference between different species and different areas, so we can sort of answer the question of where did all the abyssal species come from? There are sorts of bigger biogeographic kind of questions – [these are] what I really love to answer.

But we’re certainly interested in sort of putting our animals in a global picture, you know, like looking at comparative animals from elsewhere and saying, “Well is it the same thing that occurs from off Hawaii or off the Indian Ocean or off the Atlantic Ocean?” A lot of deep-sea scientists are in constant contact with each other, and I know where other people have been looking and so I’ll probably visit those laboratories and get some tissues from them and build up a big global picture of where some of these animals [are], how they differ around the planet.

Oceans Deeply: What else do you hope comes out of this expedition?

O’Hara: Well, as I said, it’s a voyage of discovery. We’ve produced a lot of material that we sifted from the mud, and that is going to be put in museums, so there will be a depository of specimens that can be used for scientific description and study. It’s really important to communicate to the public and say, well you’ve got these marine reserves, you’ve got this environment, we’ve really gotta look after it, because there’s actually a fair bit of rubbish down there, as well, and that was kind of disappointing. So, we’ve got to improve our act in terms of preventing some of this rubbish from hitting the deep sea, and generally understand the ecosystem better.

Oceans Deeply : Can you describe just how much trash you found down there, and what exactly it was that you found?

O’Hara: So we have a small net, it’s about 4m across, that we would drag for several hundred meters along the seafloor. Every time we did that we would bring up at least one piece of rubbish. So, a bottle or a can, or an old tin of paint, or something that was obviously been there for quite some time. Bits of machinery, bits of PVC pipes, fishing line, rope. You name it, we found it. Including all this stuff from the 19th century from steam ships. So there’s unburnt coal, there was stuff called clinker, which is formed from impurities in the steam tanks, in the old steam boilers, and we found that. It was quite dense on the seafloor. We did a box core, which brings back a small piece of the seafloor intact, and there all over it was this clinker stuff. It’s quite amazing, really.

Some of it is probably not doing the animals any harm, but other stuff – paint is obviously going to be a bit of a pollutant.

Oceans Deeply: How does this expedition compare to past expeditions that you’ve been on?

O’Hara: You could go into more depth, because everything took a long time, everything took a while to go down to the seafloor. Some expeditions are really frantic. People are putting down sampling gear every hour, and they’re drawing stuff up, and you’re kind of getting overwhelmed by everything that’s coming up. But this one, you had time to look at stuff, you had time to prepare. In a way, we could have carried the information a bit further than you normally do. Time to communicate with people. So yeah, that’s how I would compare it. Normally ship time is so valuable. You’re using every minute, and we were, too, but because of the nature of the operations we had time to sit and reflect.

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