AusOcean research team discovers underwater wonders at Smith Bay

A large 2-metre-tall coral structure was just one of the underwater features discovered by marine biologists diving on the AusOcean research mission to Smith Bay last month.

A team of five divers and four tech support members made up the multidisciplinary team that dived Smith Bay on the north coast of Kangaroo Island on the AusOcean research project over one week in December.

The not-for-profit Australian Ocean Lab or AusOcean was recently founded by retired Google engineer Alan Noble, a part-time resident of Kangaroo Island.

AusOcean’s mission is to use technology to advance and share knowledge of the oceans.

Mr Noble said the idea of last month’s research mission was to conduct an extensive marine life survey of Smith Bay, as very little was known about it or the underwater world generally around Kangaroo Island.

AusOcean’s goal is to undertake a number of marine life surveys, starting with the first-ever comprehensive marine life survey of Smith Bay, where Kangaroo Island Plantation Timbers is planning to build a seaport. 

“We are not making comment on the seaport proposal, we are just objectively trying to document what we saw in the transects and other observations,” Mr Noble said.

“When the Environmental Impact Statement comes out, we will make a determination as to whether we respond.”

Diving of Mr Noble’s yacht Arriba, the team employed the standard research method of diving along transect lines, identifying marine life either side of the lines.

The information would be forwarded to the Reef Life Survey citizen science organisation and AusOcean also planned to produced its own scientific report.

The mission was also documented on its Facebook page and on the National Geographic Open Explorer website

Mr Noble said the amazing coral structure was discovered at the end of a transect dive when the divers had some free “air time”.

“It was over 2m tall and over 2m wide. It is believed to be the species Plesiastrea versipora, although we will confirm this on our next dive,” he said, noting it could be at least 300 years old. “The discovery of the coral structure was very exciting.”

The team plans to conduct several more dives off Kangaroo Island and hopes to return to Smith Bay this February to conduct more transect dives and searches for coral.

Marine biologists believe that Southern Australia's marine environment is as diverse as that other Australian marine marvel, the Great Barrier Reef, he posted at the start of the mission. 

“Yet there is much we don't know about the region. Only recently 400 new species were discovered in the deep waters of the Great Australian Bight, which begs the question, how many more species await discovery.”

The team of marine biologists on the Smith Bay project was led by Catherine Larkin of Adelaide University.

“The Reef Life Survey (RLS) method developed by researchers at the University of Tasmania (UTAS) was utilised to gather data that will help assess the complexities of the local flora and fauna,” Catherine Larkin posted about the mission. 

“RLS is a non-profit citizen science program in which SCUBA divers undertake standardised surveys of reef biodiversity on rocky and coral reefs around the world.

“The North Coast waters of Kangaroo Island consists mainly of mixed rocky reefs and seagrass systems, exhibiting strong heterogeneity, providing unique experiences at every location.

“From swimming scallops, baby octopus to gigantic corals, these systems continually exuded magnificence. At the end of the last dive, the dive team stumbled upon a 2m high coral, home to at least 12 different fish species, possibly the first of its kind to be discovered in the area.

"This exceptional discovery highlights just how beautiful and uniquely diverse Kangaroo Island waters are with much left to be discovered. An environment that is well worth protecting.”

The team also deployed its first underwater towable camera sled prototype called “Cool Runnings” that can video footage as it is towed along the seafloor.  

Following the KI dives, the AusOcean team travelled up Gulf St Vincent to check out the shellfish restoration project at Windara Reef, near Rogues Point on Yorke Peninsula.

The coastal waters of southern Australia once contained extensive shellfish reefs comprising the native Australian oyster Ostrea Angasi and other shellfish such as Pinna Bicolor or razorfish, Mr Noble said.

The reefs were destroyed during the 19th and early 20th century through over exploitation.