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Calling all superyacht owners and crew! Critical ocean research needs your help

2019-05-22By Richard Madden

One of the greatest challenges for marine scientists is gaining access to the sea. The deep ocean (below 200 metres) is our largest and most vital ecosystem and yet we don’t fully understand how it functions or how healthy it is. Which is why BOAT International and the Ocean Family Foundation, in association with Nekton, have taken on the task of helping scientists find out.

As part of our annual Ocean Talks event, held this year on 12 June, we want to connect superyachts with marine scientists who need access to the ocean to conduct research. And we need your help.

Over the following pages, we pinpoint four key projects that require vessel time between now and summer 2020. If you own a yacht, work on a yacht or know decision-makers who can help get scientists on board on a yacht, then please contact us by emailing yachtsforscience@boatinternationalmedia.com.

Your sea needs you!

All images courtesy of Shutterstock.com

Project One: Deep scattering layers - studying a critical ocean ecosystem

What we need from you

Location: The Mediterranean and Caribbean
Berths: One, two or none, depending on the crew’s experience with echo sounders
Duration/timing: Ideally a month or more, but shorter periods may be useful
Necessary equipment: Echo sounders capable of logging water column data, but these can also be provided free of charge

Summary

Deep scattering layers (DSLs) exist throughout the world’s oceans, reaching depths of around 500 metres. They contain concentrations of commercially valuable fish and crustaceans, and are prey fields for deep-diving predators (king penguins, elephant seals and mantas). DSLs can be detected by echo sounders as they scatter and reflect sound. Only by understanding their variability can scientists predict future changes caused by fishing, rising temperatures or depleting ocean oxygen. The DSLs in the Mediterranean and Caribbean have not yet been studied and are subject to high levels of human exploitation, so knowledge of their deep-water biogeography is important. A link-up between scientists and superyachts with echo sounders will open a valuable window of observation.

Berths, duration and equipment requirements

If crew members are already trained in the use of echo sounders, no berths would be required. However, having a scientist on board to deal with unexpected instrument crashes would be ideal – two berths for a few days’ training at the start of the voyage when crew members can be shown how to reboot software in the event of crashes would be even better. Data could then be collected without a scientist on board. Yachts need echo sounders capable of logging water column data. The researchers use Simrad EK60 systems and echo sounder deck units can be provided, but yachts must have transducers already installed in the hull. The equipment is compact – about the size of a hi-fi separate – and requires only mains electricity.

Objectives

This project will make a real contribution to global ocean biogeography and to understanding the structure of the mesopelagic “twilight zone” in the Mediterranean and Caribbean, helping to maintain and improve the health of both. If sufficient data can be gathered, the team will produce a high-impact publication similar to Current Biology, a global biogeography journal that is already extremely influential.

Lead scientist: Professor Andrew Brierley

Professor Brierley has been the scientist-in- charge on four scientific voyages and has published 120 peer-reviewed publications.

In his own words

“Deep scattering layers are fascinating – they’re almost like an outer-space environment. Extraordinary animals hang there in the twilight or total darkness: lantern fish, for example, with their flashing photophores; wonderful crustaceans and giant shrimp. We want to map global variability in terms of depth and intensity and, so far, we have no data from the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. This research will give us a new window into a component of the ocean that we don’t yet have, and it will allow us to understand future change.”

Project Two: Studying black corals

What we need from you

Location: Mexico and Sulawesi, Indonesia
Berths: Three to five 
Duration/timing: Two weeks, September to November 2019 or April to June 2020
Necessary equipment: A diving compressor, cylinders and weights, plus a small dive boat (Mexico); diving gear, diving tanks, compressor, samples fixatives (chemicals) and containers (Sulawesi)

Summary

Famed for their colour and stunning growth rings, black corals have been harvested to make jewellery for hundreds of years and are believed to be crucial in supporting reefbiodiversity. For the first project, the team wants to investigate how harvesting and run-off from adjacent land developments have affected Mexican Caribbean black coral populations and associated biodiversity. Only remote areas such as Banco Chinchorro have escaped intensive harvesting, so a comparison between harvested and unaffected areas will be part of the study.

In the seas of  Sulawesi in the second project, the team will assess the role of black corals as ecosystem engineers on mesophotic (30 to 60 metres) and shallow reefs (five to 30 metres). This is crucial for understanding how reef ecosystems behave, and the findings can then support reef management programmes worldwide.

Berths, duration and equipment requirements

For the Mexican Caribbean project, four berths are required over two weeks, preferably from September to November 2019 or April to June 2020. A reduced version of the project would be possible with three berths. The survey route would run along the Mexican coast from near Playa del Carmen to near Chetumal over the first week, and around Banco Chinchorro in the second. There would need to be a diving compressor, cylinders and weights on board the vessel, although the latter can be provided, along with a small dive boat and crew. For South Sulawesi, five berths are needed over two weeks from January to November 2020, with diving gear, diving tanks, compressor, samples fixatives (chemicals) and containers required on board. The team members will conduct two or three survey and sampling dives per day.

Objectives

This study will assess the role of run-off from sediments caused by building developments on the Mexican Caribbean coast and the effects of unsustainable harvesting. In Sulawesi, the team will assess the diversity, abundance and size- frequencies of black corals. They will also gather baseline data on the abundance and diversity of associated organisms and produce baseline benthic and sh community structure data on reefs from five to 60 metres. Research results will be submitted for scientific publications in peer-reviewed journals within a year after fieldwork completion. Results and recommendations will then be communicated to Indonesian policymakers.

Lead scientists: Dr Dominic Andradi-Brown (Mexico) and Erika Gress (Mexico and Indonesia)

Dr Andradi-Brown is a marine scientist at the WWF based in Washington. His work focuses on supporting marine-protected areas in Mexico, Indonesia and Fiji. He has conducted marine research off vessels at sea for extended periods of time, and is aware of the logistical requirements for working in partnership with private yachts.

Erika Gress' research on mesophotic reefs and black corals spans different regions including Mexico, Madagascar and Indonesia. She also has significant conservation experience and was awarded the Marine Conservation Leadership Award 2018 by Fauna and Flora International and the Marsh Trust.

In their own words

“Black corals inhabit all oceans at nearly all depths and can live for more than 4,000 years. They are indispensable, providing habitat for thousands of organisms. Yet they’ve been over- exploited for millennia and we’re still trying to understand their biology and ecology.”

Project Three: Studying submerged ocean waves with an ocean glider

What we need from you

Location: Bahamas, Turks and Caicos Islands
Berths: Two
Duration/timing: 14 days. Any time from September 2019 until summer 2020
Necessary equipment: None – all equipment will be supplied

Summary

Submerged ocean waves (known as internal tides) measuring up to 700 metres exist beneath the surface of the ocean. These massive bodies of water, driven by ocean currents, are most obvious when they meet barriers such as seamounts, mid-ocean ridges or continental shelves. When they break, they create turbulence that drives an upward flux of nutrients from the deep ocean (which is light-limited but nutrient-rich) to the photic zone above (which is nutrient-poor).

One of the best places for studying internal tides is the Atlantic coastline of the Caribbean islands, especially the southern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands. Traditionally, observing internal waves required multiple instruments, which caused problems when matching biochemical responses to the physical processes. To avoid this issue, the team will use an ocean glider to make their observations.

Berths, duration and equipment requirements

Two berths are required, one for a scientist and one for a glider technician. The glider will be deployed for 14 days (a spring/neap tidal cycle), and the mission could take place any time between September 2019 and summer 2020. There are a series of seamounts near the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands where tidal currents are significant, and so this region would be an ideal experiment location.

Objectives

On a basic level, there are two ocean layers, one near the surface with lots of light and not enough nutrients, and another deeper layer with lots of nutrients and not enough light. Internal tides breaking over seamounts stir deep, nutrient-rich water up into the upper layers. These extra nutrients are taken up by phytoplankton, which are an important food source for fish in the upper layer. It’s important to study any mechanism that can bring water with nutrients up into the surface ocean as scientists don’t yet fully understand exactly where or how these waves function.

Training in physical, chemical and biological oceanography will be provided on board during the experiment and through the Introduction to Oceanography scuba divers course run annually at the University of East Anglia (UEA). Findings will be disseminated through high-impact peer-reviewed manuscripts and conference presentations. The glider mission will be followed in real-time through the UEA website, ueaglider.uea.ac.uk.

Lead scientist: Dr Robert Hall

Dr Hall is a senior lecturer in physical oceanography at the Centre for Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at the UEA, UK. A member of the UEA Glider Group, he has led several Seaglider missions.

In his own words

“Any mechanism that can bring water up from the deep will help support productivity in the surface ocean. Internal tides do precisely this, but we don’t really know how they function. Improving our understanding of how this process impacts up the food chain will be very beneficial.”

Project Four: Searching for giant manta rays

What we need from you

Location: Maldives
Berths: Two to four
Duration/timing: Two weeks. Early 2019/20 for oceanic manta rays, year-round for reef manta rays
Necessary equipment: None, but a manned submersible and crew would be a plus

Summary

The project is an extension of research on mantas in the Maldives that has been going on for more than 17 years. A lot is known about the smaller reef manta rays in the more accessible areas of the Maldives but the team also wants to understand migration and habitat use of oceanic mantas in the more remote regions of this huge archipelago. Yacht owners will be able to dive, snorkel and free dive to observe the work of the scientists.

Berths, duration and equipment requirements

A two-week period of two to four berths in the first quarter of 2019/20 for oceanic manta rays and year-round for reef manta rays. A diving compressor, dive tanks and a suitable support vessel to dive/free-dive from is required. Availability of a manned submersible and crew would be extremely beneficial, but not necessary.

Objectives

The Manta Trust is at the early stages of understanding newly discovered oceanic manta ray population in the Maldives. As well as ongoing studies of reef mantas, this expedition will explore remote and hard-to-access areas of the vast Maldives archipelago to discover and document these new populations. For effective protection of these vulnerable species, it is essential to have accurate estimates of their population size, structure, habitat use and connectivity. The research will be used to inform conservation management decisions throughout the Indian Ocean with additional support from Conservation International.

Lead scientist: Dr Guy Stevens

Dr Guy Stevens is the founder and CEO of the Manta Trust, a charity that works to advance the worldwide conservation of manta rays and their close relatives.

In his own words

“The way reef and oceanic mantas move through their different habitats is very different and we want to understand why huge numbers of oceanic mantas congregate around remote atolls for just a few weeks a year and then disappear. Oceanic manta rays are even more vulnerable than reef mantas and we know very little about this population. They are also an indicator species. If the population is suffering through climate change, for example, it might be an indication that other species will also be threatened.”

Project Five: Coral reef ecology post-hurricanes in the Caribbean

What we need from you

Location: British Virgin Islands - Great Thatch Island and Guana Island.
Berths: Minimum four (ideally six).
Duration/timing: Minimum two weeks, ideally four weeks. Flexible timing but best not in UK academic term time.
Necessary equipment: Small RIB for access to dive sites. Four (ideally six) sets of scuba equipment.

Summary

Like many small island nations, the British Virgin Islands (BVI) need healthy coral reefs for their protection and economic stability. In late 2017, Hurricanes Irma (largest in ten years) and Maria caused considerable terrestrial and marine damage. Hurricanes and other impacts - overfishing, climate change, and land-based development - over the past 50 years have compromised coral reef recovery. We are in the unique position of having ecological data (fish abundance, diversity, biomass and coral recruitment) from before these hurricanes. However, to understand the recovery of coral post-disturbance, it is crucial that baselines are collected now.

Berths, duration and equipment requirements

A minimum of four berths are required with access to a RIB and scuba equipment. Should six berths be available, at least one student from the University of Essex will join the expedition and receive training in expedition logistics, organisation, and management, as well as having access to video data for their own research project.

Objectives

The impact of recent hurricanes on BVI coral and fish communities will be investigated and a baseline for future studies laid in order to accurately monitor future structural recovery. The team will also collect coral specimens to establish sources of coral reef regeneration and monitor any shifts in fish abundance, diversity, biomass and feeding patterns post-hurricane. Techniques used will include video and visual belt transects of fringing reef sea-bed communities, stereo-video transects and 3D habitat models. Genetic samples will be also taken to see which species are returning to impacted areas

Dr Taylor is an international expert in coral reef ecology, deep-sea population genomics, global ocean biodiversity, and conservation.

Lead scientist: Dr Michelle Taylor

Dr Taylor is an international expert in coral reef ecology, deep-sea population genomics, global ocean biodiversity, and conservation. She was recently the Principal Scientific Officer on a six-week NERC-funded sea-going expedition on the RRS James Cook. She has also participated in a superyacht-based science expedition to the British Indian Ocean Territories and understands the collaborative approach required to work on such vessels.

In her own words

“The devastation caused by two recent back-to-back hurricanes impacting the BVI represents a unique opportunity to ‘experimentally’ test early stage recovery on coral reefs by looking at the number and variety of juvenile corals. We shall be using technologically advanced stereo- and 3D-video imagery to take baseline surveys of the reefs. By matching this with traditional visual survey techniques we hope to extend and improve the 25-year dataset of monitoring available for this area - something very rarely achieved.”

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