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Ningaloo Marine Parks

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02 June 2006

Spectacular sponge gardens discovered in offshore sanctuaries

A pioneering survey of the Ningaloo Research Program has discovered rich marine life in the deeper waters of Western Australia's Ningaloo Marine Park, unveiling spectacular sponge gardens with large specimens weighing up to 60 kilograms, some of which are likely to be new to science.

Ningaloo Marine Park is famous for its pristine beaches and turquoise lagoon waters that shelter behind fringing reefs, but a voyage of discovery led by the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) shows the region's breathtaking beauty goes much deeper.


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Sponges being processed in preparation for lodgement with WA Museum. They were sampled from a depth of 65 metres in the Cloates sanctuary zone.
Photo: AIMS


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A crown-of-thorns starfish (exact species still to be determined) collected from 40 metres of water below Ningaloo Reef. Photo: AIMS


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The AUV being deployed from the back deck of the RV Cape Ferguson.
Photo: Sydney University's Centre of Excellence for Field Robotics.


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In situ, downward looking image of sponges in 80 m water depth.
Photo: Sydney University's Centre of Excellence for Field Robotics.


The AIMS led study has been a major collaborative project, co-funded with the WA Government, through its Ningaloo Research Program and supported by expertise and ships from the Institute, the University of WA, Curtin University and the WA Museum.

AIMS ecologist Dr Andrew Heyward said more than 100 kilometres of the northern sector of the marine park has been examined using a mix of both advanced underwater video equipment, scientific acoustic mapping tools and more traditional sampling devices.

"It is the first time some of the major deeper water habitats have been identified and some of the collected samples are likely to contain species new to science," he said.

A key aim of the research is to provide knowledge about the marine biodiversity in the deeper, offshore areas of the Ningaloo Marine Park beyond the limits of SCUBA diving (<30 m depth). Ningaloo Marine Park encompasses depths to well over 100 m in state waters and beyond 200 m depth in the adjacent Commonwealth Marine Park zone.

Scientists have spent a month over the autumn in the offshore waters of Ningaloo Marine Park documenting life on the seafloor and collecting samples down to 110 metres.

"Hundreds of species samples have been collected from representative areas of the marine park between the Muiron Islands and Pt Cloates. These AIMS collections have been delivered to the WA Museum and will provide the foundation for a seabed biodiversity database for Ningaloo's deeper waters," Dr Heyward said.

Towed video cameras have exposed many secrets of the deep including exotic sponge and seafan gardens in 100 metres depth within the Cloates Sanctuary Zone.

"Some sponges were massive, between 600-700 mm high and their ecology remains something of a mystery. The gardens were stunning and so rich with diversity that I have no doubt these contain unique species," Dr Heyward said.

Within areas of complex seabed habitats, the expedition deployed baited underwater video cameras, which attract fish to the camera's field of view and allow the fish communities to be scientifically identified and recorded. "There appears to be strong patterns in the fish communities associated with different depths and habitat types. Highly prized recreational species such as emperor and cod were routinely observed, but further research will be undertaken in collaboration with UWA to investigate seasonal patterns of abundance and size for the key fish species."

Dr Heyward hopes to complete the deep-sea picture of Ningaloo by continuing the project through the Ningaloo Research Program over the next two years, expanding the suite of survey tools and enlisting additional science agencies with leading edge capabilities.

Already the opportunity to work at Ningaloo provided by the AIMS research ship has attracted Sydney University's Centre of Excellence for Field Robotics, who are currently deploying one of Australia's most advanced AUVs (automated underwater vehicle) from the AIMS ship RV Cape Ferguson at Ningaloo, for deep water terrain mapping with 3D stereo imaging.

This expedition is being used to test the robot for the first time in WA waters and compare cutting-edge technologies for deep water data gathering.

Video and images available on request

Media Contacts:

Dr Andrew Heyward, AIMS ecologist
Phone: (08) 9433 4440
Mobile: 0417 400 273

Wendy Ellery , AIMS Media Liaison
Phone: 07 4753 4409
Mobile: 0418 729 265