Ten years ago, the National Sea Simulator opened its doors to marine scientists and changed the way they worked forever.
Affectionately known as SeaSim, the facility has grown in leaps and bounds over the past ten years. Located at AIMS headquarters near Townsville, it provides reliable, state-of-the-art aquaria for researchers to better understand tropical marine environments and develop solutions for a changing planet.
To celebrate ten years of this world-class facility, here are some of the great successes made possible by SeaSim.
SeaSim by numbers
SeaSim has been at the heart of many national and international studies since it opened in 2013, helping to better understand and find solutions for tropical marine ecosystems.
Numbers aren’t everything, but these ones over the last ten years are impressive!
Fun fact - before it was called the National Sea Simulator, its working title was Australian Tropical Ocean Simulator
Clearing muddy waters - sediment studies support better dredging guidelines
Dredging, where part of the seafloor is reshaped to allow safe entry of ships to coastal facilities, is a major activity in tropical marine ecosystems. But uncertainty and concern about its effects on the environment make decisions on dredging difficult and costly.
Enter – a great science, industry and government collaboration.
The Western Australian Marine Science Institution (WAMSI) Dredging Science Program was one of Australia’s largest single issue environmental research programs to better understand the effects of dredging and inform dredging management.
SeaSim played an important role in the program’s success, helping scientists understand how disturbed sediment from dredging affects animals and plants living on the seafloor.
To test this, scientists needed to add real-world levels of sediment to testing aquaria holding sponges, seagrasses, and corals. They also needed to simulate different depths by changing the intensity of light as well as different light spectra to simulate a dredging plume.
The SeaSim team developed specialised systems with highly accurate sediment delivery and customised lighting to bring the real-world measurements into the lab. This helped determine the effect of sediment on the animals and plants at different depths, and their tolerance thresholds to dredging. The state-of-the-art infrastructure used was globally unique and could not have been performed elsewhere in Australia.
The program has informed dredging proposals across tropical Australia, providing greater confidence in managing our marine environment, particularly through environmental impact assessment guidelines.
Investigating heat resilience in corals
We can’t talk about SeaSim without talking about coral spawning. Each spring, scientists harness the annual mass spawning event on the Great Barrier Reef to raise thousands of fragile young corals in SeaSim. This research helps us better understand the coral life cycle and the influences on the next generation of corals.
Oh my larvae! More than 100 million coral larvae have developed in SeaSim since 2017 across all projects.
Since opening in 2013, SeaSim has been home to leading-edge studies during spawning under the banner of human-assisted evolution. Our assisted evolution research aims to understand how corals adapt to a changing environment, and how to accelerate natural evolutionary processes to help corals become more heat tolerant to keep pace with climate change.
While there is still work to do, the results are encouraging. The team has successfully boosted the heat tolerance of young corals using different techniques. Current investigations include identifying and selectively breeding temperature-tolerant adults to produce a more resilient generation, and inoculating corals with heat-resilient symbiotic microalgae.
SeaSim’s tightly-controlled large-scale aquaria conditions, round-the-clock monitoring and world-class expertise supports the ongoing success of these annual investigations.
Understanding how corals adapt to higher temperatures, and how we can accelerate this within coral communities helps reefs survive a warming future. While this research may be able to help coral reefs better withstand the impacts of climate change, there is no silver bullet. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is also critical to protect coral reefs, as is effective local management.
AIMS research into heat resilience is part of the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program, supported by the Australian Government’s Reef Trust and the Paul G Allen Family Foundation.
Developing coral aquaculture for large scale reef restoration
Developing ways to fast-track reef recovery at a scale large enough to be effective on the Great Barrier Reef is a challenge as big as the Reef itself. But AIMS scientists and collaborators are taking it on in SeaSim.
Science teams and SeaSim staff are progressing ways to breed large numbers of healthy young corals to deliver onto reefs where and when they are needed. These techniques are designed to maximise their survival in the wild, all at a reasonable cost.
To do that, we’re designing innovative approaches to each step of the aquaculture process – reproduction, rearing and delivery onto reefs using coral seeding.
We’re introducing automation to handle large numbers of young corals, speed up tasks and reduce costs. For example, the team is refining a system to automatically collect eggs and sperm from spawning adults, to replace this normally labour-intensive task. They are also developing delivery systems using robots to safely transport and place tens of thousands to millions of young corals onto the reef in need.
Did you know? Around 56 coral species from the Great Barrier Reef have been successfully spawned and reared in SeaSim!
It’s not just technology lending a hand. Scientists are looking to the small stuff – microbes – to develop probiotic cocktails to ensure optimum health of the young corals as they grow. They are gaining a better understanding of a pink, paint-like algae (called crustose coralline algae, CCA) which grows on reef surfaces and is critical to baby corals taking their ‘first steps’: changing into polyps.
Scientists and engineers developing these innovative approaches to large-scale coral aquaculture are enabled by SeaSim’s size, sophistication and staff expertise.
Coral love in winter? Out-of-season spawning
Coral reproduction is not easy to study. Many species only spawn once a year, creating a hurdle for science teams wanting to progress investigations on coral life cycles and early lives.
In 2022, the SeaSim team helped remove this hurdle.
Using SeaSim’s advanced capabilities they manipulated lighting and temperature to shift the seasonal cues of six coral species. Forty-three corals spawned six months before they would in the wild, and four hours earlier in the night to minimise late working hours for researchers.
Out-of-season spawning in SeaSim is now becoming routine. Early access to coral eggs and sperm provides scientists with opportunities to work with larvae and refine experiments ahead of the main spawning season, improving their success and efficiency. This head start is especially important for research into coral adaptation and aquaculture, where we are in a race against time to develop effective interventions.
Spiky starfish science success in SeaSim
It’s not all corals in SeaSim. We also study animals that eat them!
Coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish have been a prickly problem on the Great Barrier Reef for decades. They are native but can occur in outbreak proportions. When they do, their feasting can decimate reefs in their path.
AIMS researches many aspects of this complex problem, with many studies supported by SeaSim.
The first paper published from a SeaSim-based study was on the effect of temperature on crown-of-thorns starfish
For example, learning more about the early lives of starfish (when they are tiny floating larvae and change into small starfish and settle on the reef surface) is critical to understanding the causes of outbreaks and possible solutions to prevent outbreaks. But to study this fragile period of the starfishes’ life, we need to reliably rear them – not an easy task.
SeaSim’s excellent water quality and smart systems have made this possible. After spawning in the lab, starfish larvae are reared using a sophisticated dosing system delivering accurate levels of baby starfish food (phytoplankton) to the larvae. This ensures healthy larvae with low mortality to support a range of studies.
SeaSim’s starfish-rearing capability has helped place important pieces into the young starfish puzzle.
More than five million crown-of-thorns starfish larvae are raised in SeaSim each year for research
Our studies confirmed that when there’s more food, more larvae will survive, providing a possible pathway between increased nutrients and starfish outbreaks. We’ve shown that slightly warmer temperatures can also increase survival but above 32°C, fewer larvae change into a starfish, providing some insights into outbreaks in a warming future.
We have raised young starfish for around six years now, and they are providing amazing insights into this normally hidden and previously mysterious age group. We now know that young starfish swap their favourite food to corals from crustose coralline algae at around four to six months of age - but that depends on the type of coral around them. Studies have shown that peppermint shrimp, while an unlikely foe, is an important starfish predator. We are even developing ways to tell the age of starfish using genetic methods.
This valuable information is, piece by piece, bringing together a better understand the complexities of outbreaks on the Great Barrier Reef and importantly, may guide solutions to help control them.
A super facility needs a super team
SeaSim is more than a sophisticated system – it’s also the team who run it.
Over the past ten years, the dedicated SeaSim team has grown from 12 in 2013 to 37 in 2023, and still growing. The team of aquarists, biologists, tradespeople, engineers, technicians and support services design, build, operate and maintain SeaSim around the clock. The Townsville team make sure scientists have at their disposal the best possible facilities to produce the best possible science.
Recently, SeaSim supported four Indigenous aquaculture Cert III trainees. The graduates are now bringing their skills to various projects across AIMS to round out their training.
And that’s not all
Construction is well underway for a SeaSim expansion. Due to open in 2024, the expansion more than doubles the size of the current facility, providing more space for more projects, and helping to accelerate science to meet future needs, particularly in breeding heat-resilient corals at scale.
Alongside this expansion, SeaSim will soon open its doors as a National Facility, supporting merit-based, fully-funded science.
This expansion is funded by the Department of Education through the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS).
SeaSim continues to power tropical marine science to help meet today’s challenges. Its reliability, customised research solutions, state-of-the art controls, expert team and sheer size are providing the tools to better understand our tropical marine ecosystems, the challenges they face, and to develop solutions to help ensure their future.