I started this internship earlier this year with the assumption that the ocean floor was a barren, sandy desert under the sea, but I could not have been more wrong. Recently, I was part of the Imida research team aboard one of South Africa’s new research vessels, the Phakisa. The expedition collected benthic habitat data off the coast of East London to be used for Marine Protected Area design. My duty, as the designated “Tether Manager”, was to safeguard and watch over the 300m long umbilical cord that was attached to the Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV). A ROV is simply a remote controlled submersible device fitted with a high-tech camera and lights, which is used by marine scientists to sample deep sea marine environments.
During this expedition I got to work alongside some of the country’s top marine scientists and observe the use the ROV, diving to depths of up to 230 metres. During these exciting dives, I was blown away by the complex diversity of marine life-forms.
The habitats ranged from mountainous structures covered in a vast array of sponges and corals, vast fields of vibrant feather stars speckled with patches of various fragile lace corals, to vast fields of lace corals and “polychaete lawns” as far as the eye can see. Some habitats resembled underwater deserts with fine sand forming harmonious ripples- and yes there are dunes. Life in the dunes includes many types of seastars, seapens (soft corals adapted to living in sand). Many regions were gravelly, hosting many soft coral species and even rhodolith beds dotted with other macroalgal species in regions up to 80m deep. There are many memorable other highlights of this expedition. One that stood out was seeing large schools some of the country’s most endangered deep-sea fish species seeking shelter amongst the caves. These included the Dagaraad, Seventy-four, and the mighty Red Steenbras.
Lastly, the bottom of the ocean is definitely not a barren sandy desert as I once thought. It’s a dynamic and different world down there with many unseen and unique wonders of the natural world.