HALIFAX — Researchers are getting a first-ever glimpse of the watery depths off Newfoundland and Labrador, seeing species that are likely new to science and collecting data that could unlock centuries-old mysteries of the sea.
The team from three Canadian universities and a Spanish institute is looking at life three kilometres below the surface and have found sponges and other species clinging to steep cliffs never seen before.
Ellen Kenchington of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Halifax said biologists are using a submersible robot to beam up images of tulip-shaped sponges, delicate pink stars and feathery organisms.
"It's been really spectacular," she said from her office at the institute, as pictures from the robot streamed on her computer. "It's really changing our perception of the diversity that's out there ... We're seeing new species in deeper waters."
The 20-day research mission is being carried out near the Sable Gully marine protected area, the Flemish Cap and the Orphan Knoll until the end of the month.
Marine biologists from Halifax, St. John's, N.L., and Quebec are doing a variety of research projects aimed at getting a handle on what life forms lay below, how they're affecting currents and if they could explain what the ecosystem was like hundreds of years ago.
Using a remotely operated vehicle with manoeuvrable arms, they've already captured samples or images of prehistoric looking deep-sea cucumbers, bright pink starfish, leggy sea pens and tall organisms that look like denuded trees.
Since setting out July 8, their work has focused on the gully and the Flemish Cap, a shallow area about 560 kilometres east of St. John's that's an important fishing ground.
"Finding this many new or rare species in a single mission is extremely exciting," Andrew Cogswell, the chief scientist, said in an email Saturday.
"The next area we go to, Orphan Knoll, has never been visited and is at 1,800 metres deep. This area has never been fished ...The bottom is very interesting."
The robot, being operated by crew aboard the Canadian Coast Guard ship Hudson, is allowing the crew to go about 500 metres further than they have before -- to about 3,000 metres.
Kenchington said their images and samples will help fisheries managers understand the ecosystem and document life forms that might need protection.
Almost a dozen areas around the Flemish Cap and the Orphan Knoll received protections by the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization after the United Nations passed a resolution on vulnerable marine ecosystems. Research from this trip will be used to determine if those protected areas need to be refined or expanded when they are reviewed next year, and could determine future fishing policy.
Kenchington said the research will also help them evaluate areas that are still too deep for current fishing technologies but could be accessible in years to come.
"This will enable us to give advice in the future about what types of organisms are in these areas before they're fished," she said.
Scientists will also be able to reconstruct the marine ecosystem by dissecting certain species that can indicate what the water temperatures up to 1,000 years ago.
This week, the team plans to head to the Orphan Knoll, which has unique seamounts that have never been studied on the bottom before.
The video from the robot is being streamed at the Bedford institute, a cultural centre in St. John's and the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa.