AusOcean deploys whale listening stations, coral cam at Smith Bay off Kangaroo Island

AusOcean marine researchers Trek Hopton and Catherine Larkin deploy a sea-surface platform and underwater camera at a massive coral structure in Smith Bay. Photo AusOcean
AusOcean marine researchers Trek Hopton and Catherine Larkin deploy a sea-surface platform and underwater camera at a massive coral structure in Smith Bay. Photo AusOcean

Whale sound recording devices and also possibly the world's first temperate coral cam have been deployed off Kangaroo Island's north coast.

Marine researchers from the Australian Ocean Lab - AusOcean group installed the devices during a week-long sailing expedition to Smith Bay in April.

AusOcean partnered with Kangaroo Island/Victor Harbor Dolphin Watch to deploy underwater acoustic sensors, just in time for the annual southern right whale migration occurring in May-October.

The sensors are now listening for whales and other marine life, with recordings monitored by the citizen science group.

The other purpose of the April expedition was to deploy a sea-surface platform and underwater camera at a massive coral structure in Smith Bay.

It was hoped footage could be live streamed but the limited communications on the north coast and technical issues mean more work is needed.

Smith Bay is also the location of Kangaroo Island Plantation Timber's proposed port, currently under consideration for approval by the State Government.

AusOcean founder, former Google engineer and part-time KI resident, Alan Noble said the AusOcean crew had spent significant time on KI in recent years, conducting marine life surveys while testing new and exciting tech.

Its fourth KI expedition was undertaken despite the COVID-19 coronavirus restrictions.

The expedition was entirely self-contained on the private yacht Arriba, with no need to go ashore.

Prior to the trip, the entire AusOcean team abided by the social distancing rules and practised self-isolation from others. The workshop was moved to Willunga where AusOcean was operating out of a 250-acre farm property.

KIVH Dolphin Watch founder and retired school teacher, Tony Bartram said it was exciting to see world-leading scientific data collection efforts employed off KI's north coast.

The digital acoustic recorders were provided by a generous grant from an American philanthropist, and earlier trialled by KIVH Dolphin Watch in conjunction with operational partners Kangaroo Island Marine Adventures.

AusOcean last month deployed the devices at two sites along the north coast, setting up acoustic monitoring stations facilitating sound recordings of marine life, and in particular highly endangered southern right whales.

"This will provide important data regarding the migration of these annual visitors and give greater understandings regarding the movements of local dolphin populations," Mr Bartram said.

"AusOcean are a fantastic not-for-profit environmental organisation with a difference. Their mission is to help our oceans through technology, partnering with other NPOs in the area of marine conservation.

"Their research teams' efforts in preparing and deploying this equipment is greatly appreciated and the collaborative effort of these two organisations, together with Yumbah Aquaculture, have once again demonstrated the enormous potential Kangaroo Island's waters offer for world leading marine research."

The other half the expedition was to install the floating platform or "rig" at the Smith Bay coral.

The floating section of the rig is located above a live streaming underwater camera at a large temperate coral discovered on expedition last year and named "Granny Smith".

The platform is now connected via WiFi to Yumbah Aquaculture abalone farm about 3km away. AusOcean hopes to have the camera streaming on its next trip.

AusOcean marine researcher Saxon Milton diving on the coral known as "Granny Smith" at Smith Bay on the north coast of Kangaroo Island. Photo AusOcean

AusOcean marine researcher Saxon Milton diving on the coral known as "Granny Smith" at Smith Bay on the north coast of Kangaroo Island. Photo AusOcean

"To our knowledge, this will be the world's first live streaming temperate coral cam," Mr Noble said.

"This coral species is particularly unique as it belongs to the only coral genus capable of growing massive - this specimen is 6m in circumference and almost 2m tall.

"Many of these specimens which would have once existed in abundance in the gulfs around South Australia have been damaged and in many cases destroyed - due to prawn trawling from the 1960's onward. Our goal is to showcase the beauty and marvel of rare temperate corals to the world."

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Smith Bay's importance

AuOcean's Alan Noble said Smith Bay was renowned for sightings of the southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) and therefore provided an optimal location for cetacean acoustic monitoring.

David Connell, a Smith Bay local has had the privilege of watching the southern right whales frolic, nurse and give birth in Smith Bay for over a decade.

Over time, the visiting frequency and numbers has been on the increase.

Mr Connell said his initial encounter was a solitary mother sheltering in the bay with her calf and over the years the numbers grew as he became accustomed to when to expect them and where to keep a look out.

"Smith Bay has an ironstone reef that runs parallel to its shores, I believe the mothers feel this is great protection for their young. The bay has minimal sand so even in onshore wind days water clarity is very good,"he said.

Southern right whales aren't the only cetaceans that frequent Smith Bay and the wider north coast of KI.

Kangaroo Island / Victor Harbor (KIVH) Dolphin Watch is a community volunteer project who, in partnership with Whale and Dolphin Conservation have been monitoring dolphin populations on Kangaroo Island since 2005 and Victor Harbor since 2011.

Through unobtrusive monitoring they minimise impacts and behavioural changes, collecting vital baseline data to globally inform practise.

Scientists and dedicated volunteers of all ages collaborate on effective "citizen science" in surveys on Eco Tourism vessels: Kangaroo Island Marine Adventures and The Big Duck Boat Tours, Victor Harbor contributing a staggering number of hours over 14 years. Both images and video footage are collected, and are utilised to identify individual dolphins by distinctive dorsal fins and body markings.

Vital data is recorded on movements and habitats, creating a sustainable, longitudinal study of international significance.

KIVH dolphin watch have monitored dolphin movements extensively on the north coast, which has uncovered the importance of habitat between North Cape and Dashwood Bay - which lay either side of Smith Bay.

The AusOcean crew witnessed this first hand on numerous occasions as dolphins would often play at the bow of the boat as the crew were sailing between locations on the north coast.

Whales and dolphins spend most of their time under the surface of the water communicating through sound which makes visual monitoring methods on the surface ineffective.

This is where acoustic monitoring can provide important insights into behaviours, movements and population dynamics of these incredible creatures.

Great Southern Reef

Smith Bay and indeed, the entire north coast of Kangaroo Island forms part of the wider Great Southern Reef (GSR) spanning the entire southern coastline of the Australian continent.

The GSR is one of the most pristine and unique temperate reefs in the world and has been recognised as Mission Blue's newest hope spot in recognition of the reefs exquisite, raw beauty and immensely rich biodiversity.

KI is unique in that it sits at the confluence of two oceanographic systems providing unique habitat that supports an abundance of marine species, many of which have high conservation value.

From Leafy sea dragons, to pods of 100 dolphins and large coral colonies that have existed for hundreds of years, KI has provided an important refuge for many vulnerable species whose numbers have declined significantly elsewhere.

Our marine life surveys show that Smith Bay's environment exhibits high species richness and endemism supporting an abundance of emblematic species with high conservation value.

This is due in part to the presence of highly diverse and complex habitat supporting a myriad of species including fishes, sponges, bryozoans, echinoderms and molluscs.

Over the course of our surveys, 60 species of fish and 35 species of invertebrates were noted within surveys, comprising 1778 individuals (1460 fish and 318 invertebrates) an additional 11 species of fish and 9 species of invertebrates were sited outside surveyed transects.

Of these, five species noted belonging to the Syngnathidae (seahorses, pipefishes and seadragons) are protected under the Australian Commonwealth Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act (1999). The pristine marine environment of KI is unlike anything we've seen. Each time we return we discover something more beautiful and wondrous.

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