A young researcher is set to explore a Taranaki marine reserve with a high-tech underwater vehicle.

Victoria University PhD student Ben Harris is preparing to investigate the biodiversity of sponge gardens at the Paraninihi Marine Reserve, using a mini remotely operated vehicle, similar to an underwater drone.

With the Deep Trekker, the research team will be able to explore sponge ecology that's beyond the range of divers.

Harris will be looking at how the reefs function compared with shallow water sponge groups elsewhere and deeper water sponge groups in the Taranaki region.


The project has been made possible with support from the George Mason Charitable Trust, named for the New Plymouth entrepreneur who established it.

Harris recently met Dr Mason on his first trip to Taranaki.

"Our vision is that this research will support the need for the existing marine protected areas in Taranaki and even provide a case for extending their reach," Harris said.

"This work will be of national relevance to marine management and conservation.

"And, as the links between shallow and deeper water sponges have not been considered anywhere in the world, the results will also have international significance."

Associate Professor James Bell of Victoria University's School of Biological Sciences, said New Zealand had more than 800 species of native marine sponges, but scientists knew very little about them and most are not even named.

"The remotely operated vehicle will enable us to go further to explore depths that have previously been out of our reach, allowing us to share more information with the community about what can be found in New Zealand's marine environment, and in particular, the vast species of sponges.

"Thanks to the philanthropic support of the George Mason Trust, this project will be the first of its kind in New Zealand and will enable students at Victoria to lead exciting cutting-edge research to inform marine management using state-of-the-art technology."