Outreach
Bringing the Ocean to Society
22 May 2020
RV Falkor discovers unexplored depths of the ocean without a single scientist on board
Learn how marine researchers are overcoming some of the challenges caused by COVID-19.

As reported by ABC News Australia, a scientific research vessel is surveying the "very unexplored" depths of the Coral Sea without a single scientist on board.

One devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic for marine researchers has been the cancellation of the majority of their fieldwork. But Schmidt Ocean Institute's RV Falkor was cleared for a month-long expedition to map the Queensland Plateau in the remote Coral Sea Marine Park.

A team of scientists, led by James Cook University marine geologist Dr Robin Beaman, adapted and innovated so the trip could go ahead with just the ship's crew on board. "No scientists could go on board," he said. "This is very unusual. Typically we'd take at least 10, maybe 15 scientists. So I've been a virtual chief scientist ... I've been sitting at home watching all their monitors in real-time."

One door closes, another opens

The RV Falkor is equipped with advanced video technology and a state-of-the-art remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) called SuBastian which can go to depths up to 4,500 metres. The ship was in Australian waters to conduct a series of deepwater expeditions when COVID-19 struck.

"Suddenly borders were being closed," Dr Beaman said. "All those expeditions they'd originally planned in Northern Australia were banned and there was a very real risk the vessel was going to be banished from Australian waters."

The ship sped from Western Australia to Queensland and spent a week anchored off Cairns before securing clearance from health authorities to remain in Australia.

With some spare time due to its planned expeditions being cancelled, the Falkor team approached Dr Beaman with the idea of surveying the depths of the Queensland Plateau, which is home to 30 large coral atolls including the famed Osprey Reef. "It's very, very unexplored. We know a fair bit about the shallow waters, but what the shape of the seafloor is like deeper than scuba diving depth — and even what is living there — is quite unknown."

Science expeditions still possible

Dr Beaman, whose own scientific voyage on Australian research vessel Investigator was cancelled, was more than happy to join the Falkor expedition alongside researchers from Geoscience Australia, the University of Sydney and the Queensland Museum.

While a crew of technicians on board the ship control the SUV-sized remote operated vehicle (ROV) while it is 1 kilometre below the ocean's surface, Dr Beaman directs the survey from his spare bedroom in Cairns. "I've been sitting at home watching all their monitors in real-time, talking over the ROV footage as it live-streams in stunning 4K definition," he said. "The video stream goes back up to the ship, then up to a satellite, then to a server overseas, then through fibre optic cables back to Australia, into my house where I watch and narrate. Then it's sent back to the ship where they mix it together, then it goes back up to the satellite, and then sent back to another server where it's then streamed live on YouTube."

He said the voyage would make an invaluable contribution to understanding Australia's seafloor topography and also proved science expeditions were possible in the time of COVID-19. "It is remarkable. To be sitting in my bedroom watching a live Nautilus swim 1000 metres under the surface of the water, 300 kilometres offshore is totally thrilling. Osprey Reef is often described by marine managers as the 'jewel in the crown' of the Coral Sea Marine Park and the dive we did with the SuBastian ROV just added many more underwater video gems to that crown."

And if you want to discover the European fleet of marine research vessels, all you have to do is to enter EurOcean's Research Infrastructures Database (RID).

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