Finding Nemo I: Originating Species

Finding Nemo 1

Originating Species

The study of biodiversity and astrobiology share the common thread of viewing the planet as a whole and attempting to see its future by examining its past. The present moment in history has been characterized as the first time in which one species– humans– are in one way or another ‘responsible’ for the entire biosphere: changing it, maintaining it, and of course, possibly extinguishing it. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the Earth is losing species at a rate not seen for 65 million years, since the extinction of the dinosaurs. As Harvard professor of evolutionary biology, Andrew Knoll, remarked: " [For astrobiology] everything we know about life in the universe comes from life on Earth. In a sense, putting current diversity at peril for those who would like to understand biology as a planetary phenomenon is like burning a library."

Previous Nemo Chronicles: * 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5 * 6 * 7 * 8 * 9 * 10

Norfanz vessel, see full image slide show
Credit: Norfanz

To explore deep sea habitats and biodiversity in the Tasman Sea, a joint Australian-New Zealand research voyage carried leading Australian, New Zealand and other international scientists to uncover new marine species and habitats. The NORFANZ research voyage explored deep sea habitats around seamounts and abyssal plains around Lord Howe and Norfolk Islands through to northern New Zealand. The voyage collected biodiversity samples, DNA tissue samples, seabed habitat data, photographs and video on seamounts at depths between 200 meters and 1.2 kilometers, and surveyed free-swimming animals that live in the water masses above and around these seamounts. Australia’s National Oceans Office – the body responsible for developing and implementing Australia’s Oceans Policy – and the New Zealand Ministry of Fisheries supported the four-week voyage between 10 May and 8 June.

With cooperation from the National Oceans Office , the NASA-sponsored Astrobiology Magazine chronicles their notes written by the researchers onboard. As the director of the Hayden Planetarium, Neil Tyson, wrote about the marvels of biodiversity: "I do not know whether biologists walk around every day awestruck by the diversity of life. I certainly do. On this single planet called Earth, there co-exist (among countless other life forms), algae, beetles, sponges, jellyfish, snakes, condors, and giant sequoias. Imagine these seven living organisms lined up next to each other in size-place. If you didn’t know better, you would be hard-pressed to believe that they all came from the same universe, much less the same planet".

The main goal of the summer expedition mirrored that sentiment: to provide baseline information on the, nature and potential vulnerability of these unique habitats and their biodiversity. The results will give scientists interested in biodiversity a much better understanding of the species that live on and around the deep seamounts and ridges throughout the Tasman Sea, many of which were new to science. The information will also enhance and contribute to international collaboration in oceans management.

Day 1: 10 May 2003
08.00hrs: 6 n. mls SW of Mt Egmont
22.00hrs 76 n. mls off Kaipara Harbour; heading NW at 12 knots.
Weather: wind WNW 23 knots; sea slight NW swell 0.5m.
By Clive Roberts

We left Wellington Harbour last night on schedule at 20.00hrs (8pm). It was a special moment for all on board who had worked very hard over the last 2-3 years to make this voyage happen. After a hectic day ensuring that 1001 items of equipment were safely packed away, we said our goodbyes and finally we were off!

Once outside Wellington Harbour we experienced that familiar roll of a vessel at sea. The weather was very good, but nevertheless it takes a day or two to adjust to the constant motion. To begin with the body resists the movement and gets tired. But eventually the senses relax and the muscles and balance start to work with the movement, not against it.

This morning I was not feeling very good, having a tummy ache and feeling too hot. I felt best sitting down, which was okay because most of the day was taken up with meetings of the Science Committee. We fine-tuned our samplings plans and arranged our scientists into two shifts dividing the 24-hour day in half — 03.00 to 15.00hrs and 1500 to 03.00 hrs. Not easy hours to work, but as with the vessel movement one adapts and gets used to getting up and going to bed at unusual times.

Lizard fish, see full image slide show
Credit: Norfanz

Today the scientists and our crew were busy rigging the sampling gear and making our work areas operational in preparation for our first sample stations tomorrow afternoon.

Let’s hope this good weather holds and my sea sickness goes away. Despite feeling uncomfortable early on, it is great being at sea again. I wonder what tomorrow will bring?

Day 2: 17.00hrs, 11 May 2003.
Trawling at 3 knots.
Wind NW 13 knots; sea slight, SW swell 1m. Air temp 18.5 C, sea surface temp 18.9 C.

The weather today has been beautiful and sunny with a gentle swell, ideal for developing our "sea legs" and sorting out our work areas. We arrived at our first sample station around mid-day. After exploring the area with echo sounders a suitable area of seabed around 350-500m deep was selected for a trawl shot. The trawl was an orange roughy bottom trawl modified with two cone nets in the wings to catch small specimens. Later we shall be sampling between 550-1000m and 1050-1500m depth with this gear.

Brittle stars, see full image slide show
Credit: Norfanz

It was a very good feeling seeing the trawl disappear down the stern ramp and into the clear depths – our first station and at last we shall be collecting some fishes and invertebrates. After a standard tow of 1.5 kms the trawl was brought up.

Once safely secured, all the scientists rushed onto the deck to search the cod end, cone nets and net meshes in a flurry of excitement. As it happened the net was nearly empty with just a few specimens of rubyfish, orange perch, and sea perch, to keep the fish scientists happy, and one arrow squid, and a handful of small prawns for our invertebrate specialists.

Although the catch was small it was ideal for testing our processes and procedures. Fishes were taken below to be identified, weighed, photographed, documented and preserved. Invertebrates were processed on deck and in the adjacent plankton lab.

As expected there were a number of "log jams" of specimens when delays caused a build up. Forgotten items of equipment and systems not working as well as they should contributed to the problem. However these difficulties will be ironed out over the next few stations as we get more efficient at handling the specimens and collecting a substantial amount of data.

We are now working in our shifts. Mine is 03.00-15.00hrs, which means I am over time already. However because we have a lot still to do and there are two more trawls planned tonight before changing gear, I intend to keep working. We shall be steaming for about 20 hours tomorrow to the next site, so time to catch up on some sleep then.

Our trawl gear is working well and the seabed is not too rough, so we shall attach the benthos headline camera to the next trawl shot. This is a valuable piece of equipment that we cannot risk loosing on rough ground. The camera and lights photograph the bottom in front of the trawl to provide a picture of the seabed and the changes in habitat. In addition to some interesting photos, this habitat information can be plotted and compared with the samples caught, and so help us understand where deep sea species live.

It is going to be a busy night – more tomorrow.


Norfanz deck filled with a catch, see full image slide show
Credit: Norfanz

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the New Zealand National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research Ltd (NIWA) are providing scientific support for the voyage. The NORFANZ voyage will use NIWA deep-sea research vessel, the R.V. Tangaroa (NORFANZ).

The expedition received considerable interest from scientists worldwide. Twenty four scientists from more than eleven research organisations will be represented onboard, including staff of CSIRO, Hobart; Museum Victoria; the University of Tasmania; Australian Museum; Queensland Museum; Northern Territory Museum; NSW State Fisheries; Te Papa, Wellington; National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, New Zealand; Institute de Recherche pour le Développement, Noumea; Natural History Museum, Paris; and California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco.

Related Web Pages

NORFANZ Expedition
Expedition Slide Show
Atlantis Diaries
Expedition Listings
Ghost Hunters Tasmanian Tiger Expedition
Spying on Biodiversity
Australian Museum Norfanz