For the common man, mountains are a large landform that stretches above the surrounding land in a limited area, usually in the form of a peak. In geography we were taught that a mountain is generally steeper than a hill. And that mountains are formed with movement between tectonic plates or volcanoes erupting. So it is amazing to know that their are mountains under the sea as well and that marine scientists today with the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature ) are undertaking their third expedition to explore these seamounts. This scientific expedition is to explore life on undersea mountains – or seamounts – in the high seas south of Madagascar
So why is an expedition like this needed at all one might ask? This expedition is a key stage of a project, aimed at the conservation and sustainable use of seamount ecosystems in the South West Indian Ocean, led by the IUCN. It is a three-week-long expedition aboard the French Polar Institute’s research vessel Marion Dufresne which will explore the fauna of the Walters Shoal seamount.
The IUCN explains that while past expeditions concentrated solely on collating information on species inhabiting the seabed and the water, this one will gather extensive data on everything from plankton to seabirds and marine mammals to better understand how the seamount is linked to surrounding ecosystems. The summit area of Walters shoal is very shallow; and this will enable scientists to dive on the seamount, observe and collect species by hand rather than relying on robots as they did during previous expeditions. The expedition is to set out from Le Port, Reunion Island on April 23rd. Planned arrival date in Durban, South Africa is May 18th, after three and a half weeks at sea. Scientists will spend around 19 days exploring the seamount.
The expedition will be undertaken in the Walters Shoal, which is a group of submerged mountains in the Western Indian Ocean, on the Madagascar Ridge, 450 nautical miles south of Madagascar, & 700 nautical miles east of South Africa. The summits rise to at least 500m below the water surface and extend over an area of 400km. The maximum summit height is 4,750m – around 60m short of the Mont Blanc. The expedition will set out from Le Port, Reunion Island, and end in Durban, South Africa.
To answer the question as to why such an expedition needs to be undertaken, this is what François Simard, Deputy Director of IUCN’s Marine Programme says – “ Seamounts are islands of marine life with an important role in maintaining the health of the ocean. They contribute to food security by supporting fish stocks, and the unique species they harbour could provide genetic material for the development of future medicines. Yet they face increasing threats from unsustainable fishing and deep sea mining, and remain largely unexplored. We urgently need more research into these hotspots of marine biodiversity or we risk losing species that we didn’t even know existed.”
Seamounts are home to many endemic, slow-growing, slow-reproducing species, and are highly vulnerable to intense fishing practices such as bottom trawling; both commercial and recreational fishing take place on Walters Shoal, including illegal fishing.
Seamounts have the potential to contribute to the development of new medicines through the use of marine genetic resources from the many unique species they support.
Seamounts play an important and only partially understood role in marine ecosystems well beyond the seamounts themselves; damage to seamounts could have widespread effects on ocean health and fisheries.
Fewer than 300 out of the world’s 200,000 seamounts have been explored so far.
Scientists will explore the fauna of the seamount and its role in the surrounding ecosystem.
They will also investigate the effects of unsustainable fishing practices and exploration for future deep sea mining on the seamount ecosystem.Walters Shoal has particularly shallow summits – some only 18 metres below the ocean surface – while the summits of seamounts are usually 1000-2000m below the surface; this will enable scientists to dive on the seamount rather than relying on subsea robots as during previous expeditions, allowing for hands-on data collection and better observation of marine life.
Like most seamounts, the Walters Shoal lies within areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ) – marine areas covered by fragmented legal frameworks which leave their biodiversity vulnerable to growing threats. By improving our understanding of seamount ecosystems, this project aims to inform on-going discussions towards an implementing agreement to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
The Project is led by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) – Global Marine and Polar Programme. Scientific project partners: Muséum National de l’Histoire Naturelle (MNHN), Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) Vessel chartered by the Institut Polaire Français (IPEV) The project is financed by the Fonds Français pour l’Environnement Mondial “Walters Shoal” Expedition The “Walters Shoal” expedition is bringing to fruition the objectives of the scientific component of the IUCN FFEM-SWIO project.
Acquiring scientific data to enhance their knowledge and understanding of high seas ecosystems is one way to help move forward and support the future negotiations for the implementation of measures towards a sustainable use of their resources and conservation of their biodiversity.
In addition to the scientific aspects, the expedition aims to raise awareness about these important issues. Thus, it will serve as a basis for the development of a scientific documentary and an educational program.
Marianne Furtado de Nazareth is the former Assistant Editor, The Deccan Herald, adjunct faculty, St. Joseph’s PG College of Media Studies & a PhD scholar at the Madurai Kamaraj University