AusOcean finds protected sea dragons at Smith Bay jetty site

LEAFY DRAGON: Divers from non-profit scientific organisation AusOcean this week found this leafy sea dragon at Smith Bay at the location of KIPT's proposed timber port. Photo: Trek Hopton
LEAFY DRAGON: Divers from non-profit scientific organisation AusOcean this week found this leafy sea dragon at Smith Bay at the location of KIPT's proposed timber port. Photo: Trek Hopton

Divers from research organisation AusOcean have been back at Smith Bay on the north coast of Kangaroo Island this week conducting more underwater surveys.

AusOcean founder Alan Noble said the purpose of the latest survey at Smith Bay better understand how Kangaroo Island Plantation Timber's revised jetty design would impact on the environment.

AusOcean also plans to deploy its first solar-powered floating ocean observation rigs in Kangaroo Island waters this summer.

"We already have DPTI approval for one at a north coast site near North Cape and are seeking approval for a second location at Smith Bay," Mr Noble.

AusOcean divers this week, including new team member marine biology summer intern Lachie McLeod from the University of Adelaide, have already had some interesting finds at Smith Bay.

Five species from the Syngnathidae or seahorse family including three pipefish, weedy dragons and leafy dragons were observed on the dive transects.

"Leafy sea dragons look like they are out of this world and these beauties are found only in southern Australian waters," Mr Noble said.

"Leafys belong to the Syngnathidae family which include seahorses, pipefish and sea dragons. All species in this family are protected under the Australian Commonwealths Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act (1999)."

New AusOcean team member, marine biology summer intern Lachie McLeod from the University of Adelaide.

New AusOcean team member, marine biology summer intern Lachie McLeod from the University of Adelaide.

AusOcean divers earlier this year made significant ecological discoveries, including massive coral structures, right at the location were KIPT plans to build its timber exporting port.

Founded by former Google Australia engineering director Alan Noble and ecologist professor Sean Connell, Australian Ocean Lab (AusOcean) is a not-for-profit organisation based in South Australia that is developing underwater technology to monitor the health of marine environments.

Alan Noble is using his experience as a Google engineer to monitor ocean health.

Alan Noble is using his experience as a Google engineer to monitor ocean health.

Mr Noble said he began the program to bridge a major knowledge gap of marine ecosystems with data from low-cost floating rigs equipped with various sensors and cameras powered by solar panels and batteries.

"The rigs are powered by the sun and they have networking equipment, so they basically can communicate back to shore," Noble said.

"And the big difference from traditional equipment is that they're basically always online. So, the closest analogy would be like a surveillance camera."

Noble said where ocean knowledge had previously been very fragmented, AusOcean could provide an uninterrupted insight into the workings of the ocean.

"Typically, what happens is scientists will go out on a boat or go diving and they'll accumulate a few hours of information and then go back to the lab. It'll be weeks or months, sometimes years, before they're able to return again," Mr Noble said.

"So, they get these glimpses of what's happening in the ecosystems that is extremely sparse - but what we have been developing is a continuous monitoring system."

Mr Noble said while AusOcean's monitoring devices were always evolving, there had been a focus on adapting off-the-shelf video cameras to provide high-resolution underwater footage, which analysts are able to review.

"Wherever possible, we'll try to use off-the-shelf technology and find ways to apply that to the marine environment," Mr Noble said. "Our favourite camera, is a very, very low-cost camera that costs $39."

Mr Noble said adapting a low-cost camera to be waterproof and suitable for ocean conditions was more challenging than buying an expensive dive camera, but the idea behind AusOcean was to deploy the networked rigs on a large scale so they had to be inexpensive and easy for anyone to make.

"We don't just want a few dozen of these things. Ultimately, we want thousands of these platforms. We want these to be everywhere," he said.

Alan Noble with the AusOcean solar-powered rig.

Alan Noble with the AusOcean solar-powered rig.

AusOcean used the cameras to conduct extensive marine life surveys of Smith Bay on Kangaroo Island in South Australia where he said they also planned to trial an inexpensive hydrophone.

Mr Noble said AusOcean's aim was to develop robust ocean monitoring equipment as cheaply as possible, which would allow marine scientists and even school students to develop and use the technology.

He said that after a career of developing enterprise and consumer software for commercial purposes he deliberately made the AusOcean technology open source so anyone could build their own ocean rigs to add to the study.

"Everything we do is open source and open hardware," he said. "There's an opportunity to use technology to have an impact beyond profits and I'm a big believer in doing what you care about. In my case, it's the ocean."

(Part of this story was first published by The Lead and republished with permission)

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