Saturday, March 5, 2011

Indonesia Expedition: The search for seamounts

This post is written by Indonesia Expedition team leader Dr. Greg Stone. He is a Senior Vice President and Overseer of the New England Aquarium and Senior Vice President and Chief Scientist for Oceans at Conservation International (CI).
The PLAN B engines rumble to a halt as we arrive at our first dive site. We are on the equator under the hot Indonesian sun, surrounded by lush green mountains. PLAN B's hydraulic crane stains to lift the 5 ton skiff over the side and gently into the sea. The water is blue, turquoise, warm and clear.

Raja Ampat Islands from underwater (Photo: Greg Stone)

Brian Skerry, Mark Erdmann, Alan Dynner and I load the skiff with SCUBA tanks, dive gear, underwater scooters, cameras, sampling equipment and, after a short run from the PLAN B mother ship, are soon rolling over the side into the magical underwater world of Raja Ampat.

 Brian Skerry, Alan Dynner and Mark Erdmann (Photo: Greg Stone)

These are among the most spectacular reefs in the world, containing within them the worlds highest shallow water biodiversity in terms of number of fish species, coral and other invertebrates. I am in total awe as a wall of trevally shimmers past me, yellow and purple crinoids wave in the current and adorn the reef below. I see a few black tip sharks, but not as many as I would like, off the edge of the reef into the blue open water. A turtle noses by as if curious and swims along side Alan Dynner for a minute or two.

 Trevally (Photo: Greg Stone)

 Coral sea fan, soft coral and a crinoid (Photo: Greg Stone)

After several days in the Birds Head seascape, it seems like the scenes of coral reefs and deep sea life will never end. A myriad of coral animals dazzle our eyes on each SCUBA dive down as deep as a bout 100 feet. Dr. Mark Erdmann, the CI Bird's Head Seascape regional coordinator and ocean expert for this region, collects new species of fish and takes us on a tour de force of marine life.

Mark Erdmann using an underwater scooter (Photo: Greg Stone)

Brian, one of the world’s greatest underwater photographers and journalist, fires his cameras and strobes as he makes a series of pictures that will illustrate a National Geographic article he and I are doing. At the same time, the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV-an underwater robot) is diving down up to 900 feet seeing deep-oceanscapes that have never been viewed or visited by people. A squirrel and angle fish, likely new to science, hover in front of the ROV’s bight lights and cameras against a background that looks like the surface of the moon, bleak, dark and pock marked. A chambered nautilus, one of the most primitive animals in the ocean, zig zags by and we are all glued to the screen watching.

 Chambered nautilus photographed during an ROV dive

Yellow crinoid (at right) and other reef animals (Photo: Greg Stone)

Yesterday we visited the marine protected area in Wayag Marine Protected Area (MPA) region. I toured CI's Wayag MPA field station, a remote outpost with 15 - 20 patrol team members; this group includes CI's permanent MPA staff, community patrols and Indonesian policy officers. I was totally impressed to see the on the ground spirit, capability and commitment of this team in looking after, monitoring and enforcing this important MPA; protecting the marine resources here for the benefit of humanity; this is just one of the 10 MPAs in the Bird's Head seascape. It is an uninhabited cluster of islands that look like giant be hives with spectacular coral reefs and animals all around them.

The expedition team is using the Plan B's helicopter to search for seamounts. (Photo: Greg Stone)

But the real prize and objective of this trip is to locate and study new undiscovered seamounts and the new and unique biodiversity they may contain. I am very pleased to be conducting this work in collaboration with the Waitt Institute, the National Geographic Society, the New England Aquarium and our many wonderful and amazing CI staff in the region. Stay tuned as our search continues.

-Greg Stone

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