Seamounts and coral: a conservation diary from the deep

Image of a crab captured by a camera aboard a remotely operated submarine vehicle (c) NERC Life can be surprisingly colourful thousands of metres below the sea surface

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A team of scientists has set out on a six-week mission, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, to explore the Indian Ocean's underwater mountains, or seamounts.

The scientists aboard the research vessel, the RRS James Cook, will study life thousands of metres below the surface.

Aurelie Spadone from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature is part of this team. This is the first of a series of diary entries she is writing for BBC Nature.

18 November: An 89.5m Universe

It is an amazing experience to be on board this research vessel. The oceans cover 70% of our planet, represent 90% of the living space and we know so little about it.

Sea fan (c) NERC Images from remotely operated submarine vehicles revealed gardens of corals, sea fans and sponges

How can we efficiently protect something we don't know much about? That is exactly why we are here: to learn more about these deep-sea habitats in order to be able to protect them against present and future threats such as deep-sea mining, fishing and other ways the oceans can be exploited.

This expedition aims to study five seamounts of the southwest Indian Ocean ridge. During this first week, we reached the first site that we're investigating: the Coral seamount. And we've sent the ROV on its first dives.

ROV stands for Remotely Operated Vehicle. It's a type of robot that is operated from the ship through an electric cable called an umbilical. It has two mechanical arms and it can take samples - of sediments and water - and even collect organisms from the seabed to bring back on board.

It can also take measurements and it has high definition cameras that take images of the seabed and relay them to the screens on board the research vessel.

I must admit, I was impressed by the live ROV images showing colourful gardens of stony corals, sea fans and sponges. These are inhabited by bright orange crabs, deep scarlet shrimps and pink squat lobsters with golden eyes that reflect the ROV lights. There are familiar creatures such as fish, and more exotic animals, such as slow moving sea spiders.

One of the most startling things for me has been seeing the interdependence of the species in the deep sea: a sea cucumber carries scale worms that live on its belly; corals have their own complement of worms. Live sponges have squat lobsters living inside them.

RSS James Cook (c) NERC The RRS James Cook is the research team's new home

It's the interconnected, chaotic world of biology and the closer you look the more you see.

Up to now, the weather hasn't been rough at all, considering the reputation of the area in which we are sailing. The strong westerly winds here are nicknamed "the roaring forties". Calm weather is very good news for the science team; we can't deploy instruments if it's too rough.

All participants are now working hard on a 12 hour per day watch. And that's for 45 days in total. The ship is now where we sleep, eat, work and relax. Its everything for us. In a way, our universe has been reduced to this 89.5 m long vessel.

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