Using high-tech robotic cameras, a team of Canadian and Spanish scientists has discovered previously unknown marine life forms off the coast of Newfoundland and is getting insights into the North Atlantic's ecosystem and climate as far back as 1,000 years.
The team is led by Fisheries and Oceans Canada and includes scientists from two Canadian universities and the Spanish Institute of Oceanography. The team is now two-thirds of the way through a 20-day expedition to study 11 deepwater areas under the protection of the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization.
Exploring these areas is important because they contain the "trees of the ocean," CNN quoted one of the lead scientists, Ellen Kenchington, saying.
"It's been really spectacular," she told CNN affiliate CTV from her office at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Halifax as pictures from the robot camera 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."
"Finding this many new or rare species in a single mission is extremely exciting," Andrew Cogswell, the expedition's chief scientist, said in an email to CTV Saturday.
As well as government scientists from Halifax, researchers from Memorial University in Newfoundland and Universite du Quebec a Montreal are also bringing their expertise to the mission.
The photos were beamed up from the expedition's submersible robot on the ocean floor about 3,000 metres — twice the depth of the blown BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico — below the surface of the North Atlantic.
Among the never-before-seen images are tulip-shaped sponges, brightly coloured corals and other delicate organisms.
Samples of coral and sponges are also being collected by the submersible and brought to the surface for study.
The coral's chemical composition is considered important because scientists can study the samples to estimate water temperature and other data from 1,000 years ago.
"That's how we are able to say if there is warming or a change in climate direction," Kenchington was quoted by CNN telling one news outlet. "In order to understand the present, we need to put it into context."
The underwater robot, operated by crew aboard the Canadian Coast Guard ship Hudson, is enabling the crew to go about 500 metres deeper than they have before, CNN said.
Kenchington told CTV the research will also help them evaluate sensitive underwater 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," Kenchington told CTV.