NZ Antarctic voyagers return with scientific treasure trove

By Kent Atkinson

Scientists and crew of New Zealand's biggest scientific voyage in the Antarctic waters of its Ross Sea dependency have returned with a treasure trove of new fish and other organisms.

The research vessel Tangaroa returned to Wellington today after completing the most comprehensive survey of marine life in the region.

The 7140 nautical mile voyage surveyed some areas and habitats for the first time, and uncovered many species that are new to science.

The 26 scientists and 18 crew endured the worst ice conditions documented in the Ross Sea in 30 years to complete 35 days of sampling Antarctic marine biodiversity and habitats.

The voyage, which took 50 days and $6.6 million of government funding, was part of an international effort by 23 countries to survey marine ecosystems and habitats in the waters surrounding Antarctica.

The voyage would contribute to two global science programmes: International Polar Year and the Census of Antarctic Marine Life.

The researchers worked round the clock in the 24-hour days of the Antarctic summer collecting more than 30,000 samples of many different forms of life from tiny micro-plankton up to large toothfish and recorded some never-seen-before views of the seabed.

Fish experts onboard recorded 88 fish species, of which eight are possibly new to science.

Many of the fish have special adaptations to deal with the extreme polar and deep-sea environments they live in.

Malcolm Clark, of the National Institute of Atmospheric and Water Research (Niwa), and Stefano Schiaparelli, of the Italian National Antarctic Museum, reported continued discoveries of new species or new records of invertebrates.

Many would remain unconfirmed until samples were sent to experts around the world after the voyage.

In a report on the internet they said there were a number of animals that have been caught or photographed that they were confident were new species, new records, or adding a lot of information about poorly known groups.

These included a sea lily found in shallow waters, a sea urchin and a snail found at a depth of 2200m.

Some unusual squid species were caught, including several juvenile colossal squid.

The survey also captured samples from the sea surface, the water column and the seabed.

While processing the samples, scientists had to battle worse than expected weather, with temperatures down to minus-13degC and blizzards that caused equipment to ice up and samples of seawater, mud and fish to freeze on deck.

Hi-tech cameras allowed scientists to see many communities on the sea-floor for the first time and revealed new information about the behaviour, inter-relationships and habitats.

The voyage was a collaboration between Land Information New Zealand (Linz), Ministry of Fisheries, Niwa, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Antarctica New Zealand, New Zealand universities, and both the Italian and United States Antarctic programmes.

The entire voyage was filmed by Natural History New Zealand, an American-owned company.

- NZPA

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