AIMS and partner WAMSI (the Western Australian Marine Science Institution) led a major collaborative study to map the seafloor habitats and communities of the deeper waters in Ningaloo Marine Park, Western Australia.
The Western Australian Government's Ningaloo Research Program co-funded the research, which included the expertise of the University of Western Australia, Curtin University and the Western Australian Museum.
While the beautiful lagoons and coral areas remain iconic features of the Ningaloo Marine Park, the study revealed that the park’s less accessible deeper waters seem likely to support as many seafloor species as the more famous adjacent shallow reef.
Ningaloo Marine Park stretches from Red Bluff around the North-West Cape and finishes close to Exmouth. Its boundaries encompass most of the Ningaloo Reef─the largest reef in Australia and one of the longest in the world─as well as a significant area in the adjacent continental shelf.
The 4566 square kilometre marine park contains very accessible, highly diverse shallow water marine ecosystems typical of tropical coral reef habitats. However, the majority of the park lies in waters seaward of the fringing reef crest.
Some studies have gathered data on fish and corals along the outer reef slope, but until this study there had been little research beyond the reef crest.
The AIMS-led project combined advanced underwater video equipment, scientific acoustic mapping tools and more traditional sampling devices to map the deeper waters beyond the reef crest.
A towed video system combined with high-resolution still cameras captured a visual record of the marine park seafloor, enabling researchers to quantify the diversity, abundance and variability in these communities. We then integrated this information with data on seabed depths, morphology and sediments.
Scientists also deployed baited remote underwater video gear to identify, measure and record fish species in all the major habitat types. We identified major variations in depth, degree of habitat complexity and sediment types according to different types of fish communities.
The initial field surveys revealed a wealth of information about the diverse array of filter-feeding communities in the park’s deeper waters. These communities vary in composition, depending on depth and position, and can be dominated by sponges, soft corals, whip corals or gorgonians.
AIMS extended this deeper water biodiversity mapping along Ningaloo Reef and the broader Carnarvon Shelf region, working in partnership with Geoscience Australia under the Commonwealth’s Environmental Research Fund program.
The majority of offshore Ningaloo Marine Park has now been mapped and enough seabed habitat data collected to enable the development of predictive habitat models along the whole Marine Park.