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Scientists fathom unexplored depths off South Australia

Expedition leader, Dr David Currie

Expedition leader, Dr David Currie

Asphaltite tar ball (courtesy PIRSA)

Asphaltite tar ball (courtesy PIRSA)

Marine National Facility Research Vessel, Southern Surveyor

Marine National Facility Research Vessel, Southern Surveyor

Marine National Facility Research Vessel, the Southern Surveyor

Marine National Facility Research Vessel, the Southern Surveyor

Ocean Canyon

Morum submarine canyon visualisation by V. Tokarev (ASP, University of Adelaide).

Small balls of natural tar washed up on beaches along South Australia’s Bonney Coast in the South-East have led to a major ‘voyage of discovery’ on the Marine National Facility Research Vessel, the Southern Surveyor, for 12 Australian scientists.  

Marine experts and geo-scientists will leave Hobart today (Feb 4) on a million dollar expedition expecting to find new life forms in the depths of canyon systems off the Bonney Coast in the South East and Cape deCouedic off Kangaroo Island. 

“This is frontier science” according to expedition leader, Dr David Currie of the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI). “At this stage we know virtually nothing about the deep water canyon systems in Southern Australia, which start at the edge of the continental shelf and fall to abyssal depths of more than 5000 metres.” 

Dr Currie said interest in the canyons was initially sparked by asphaltite tar balls found on SE beaches. “They are possibly transported up the canyons from natural leaks in oil bearing sediments at the base of the canyon slopes. 

“This points to oil and gas reserves on the continental slope, so it is imperative we understand the importance of the canyons to regional productivity before a need arises to manage any other activity,” he said. “These canyons are also next to two recently established Commonwealth Marine Reserves – Murray and Nelson – and we want to see how water circulation patterns involving the canyons affect the distribution of species and how they spill over into the adjacent marine protected areas.” 

Oceanographers, fish and phytoplankton biologists, benthic ecologists and petroleum geo-scientists will piece together the nature and ecology of these canyon systems and their importance to the productivity of South Australian waters. 

They will be sampling sediment on the ocean floor, fish populations and organisms which live on the sea bottom, as well as mapping the canyons which act as conduits to transport sediment and nutrients from the deep ocean to the shallower waters of the Continental shelf. 

3D acoustic patterns of the sea floor will build a vivid and animated picture of the region and help explain how the canyons contribute to marine health and productivity. 

“We are also collecting DNA samples of fish and invertebrates for the Census of Marine Life project – an international collaboration of around 50 nations trying to understand marine biodiversity and distribution,” said Dr Currie.

Dr Currie said this was a really exciting opportunity for scientists. 

“Little biological sampling has been undertaken in waters deeper than 200 metres in South Australia. Southern Surveyor, funded by the Federal Government, is a large and well equipped ship giving us the capability to sample down to 5000 metres.” 

“Our trip will be carried out during a period of rich productivity in the area with the Flinders Current driving the ocean’s nutrients to the surface, so we will have an excellent opportunity to look at the food web - who eats what and when - in this part of our world,” said Dr Currie.  

Scientists from the Marine Innovation SA (MISA) institutions – SARDI, Flinders University, University of Adelaide, South Australian Museum and PIRSA, as well as 18 crew members will operate 24 hours a day on 12 hour shifts for the 23 day voyage.

The 66.1 metre Southern Surveyor has a range of sophisticated onboard laboratories, including fish sorting room, fish/geoscience laboratory, preservation/photographic laboratory, wet hydrographic laboratory, chemistry laboratory, electronics workshop, data processing room and photographic darkroom.

Southern Surveyor is managed by CSIRO as a National Facility available to all Australian marine scientists. Research time is awarded on the basis of the excellence of the science proposed. 

Dr Currie’s voyage will be collaboratively funded with the Federal Government meeting ship costs and the State Government funding Marine Innovation SA scientists’ participation. 


Contact: Dr David Currie, Expedition Chief Scientist, SARDI Aquatic Sciences, Ph: 8207 5318 or 0417 315859  email: david.currie@sa.gov.au or david.currie@surveyor.marine.csiro.au 

Heather Riddell, SARDI Communications, Ph: 8303 9561 or 0417 851936 email: heather.riddell@sa.gov.au 

To view expedition details for voyage number SS02/08, go to the CSIRO Marine National Facility site at: http://www.marine.csiro.au/nationalfacility/voyagedocs/index.htm