Museums Victoria scientists return from voyage of deep sea discovery with astonishing variety of weird and wonderful deep sea creatures

Considered one of the most inaccessible and unexplored environments on the planet, the Museums Victoria-led, CSIRO and NESP Marine Biodiversity Hub-supported, voyage will return to shore this Friday 16th June, with its precious cargo of weird and wonderful deep sea species discovered in the abyss – a deep, dark, crushing environment 4000m below the surface.

The "faceless" fish

More than one third of the spineless critters and some of the fishes found during this voyage are completely new to science.

From the mysterious depths the team have uncovered a gorgeous red coffinfish with a fishing rod on its head, giant anemone-sucking sea spiders, a Blob fish (the cousin of Mr Blobby, voted the world’s ugliest animal), a Shortarse Feelerfish, flesh-eating crustaceans, zombie worms, a Cookie cutter shark with teeth arranged like the serrated edge of a steak knife, a herd of sea pigs (the ocean’s vacuum cleaners), a spectacular Ferrari-red crab with large spines, bioluminescent sea stars, carnivorous sponges, tripodfish that perch on stilts-like legs and a multitude of microscopic critters.

The journey saw the rediscovery of the "faceless" fish, a deep sea fish with no-visible eyes and a mouth on the underside of its head.  The image of this strange creature went viral across the world. It was the first of a series of fishes brought up from these depths with seemingly featureless faces and embedded non-functional eyes.

The 31-day expedition, led by Museums Victoria and supported by CSIRO Marine National Facility and the NESP Marine Biodiversity Hub, saw a team of 58 scientists, technicians and crew, from fourteen institutions within Australian and around the world, travel from Launceston to Brisbane on board the Marine National Facility research vessel Investigator.

"Australia’s deep-sea environment is larger in size than the mainland, and until now, almost nothing was known about life on the abyssal plain. We're really excited about the discoveries that we’ve made and are thrilled that we can now share them with the Australian and international public," said Dr Tim O’Hara, the voyage’s Chief Scientist and Museums Victoria’s Senior Curator of Marine Invertebrates.

A selection of these extraordinary marine creatures will go on display at Melbourne Museum in the coming months. The samples from the journey will be stored within Museums Victoria’s 16 million strong natural science collections, and in other museum collections within Australia and around the world. These collections provide an important biodiversity library of specimens accessible by researchers across the globe.

The voyage also sought to investigate pollution found on the sea floor, and other human impacts such as microplastics in surface waters. “We have found highly concerning levels of rubbish on the seafloor. We’re 100 kilometres off Australia’s coast, and have found PVC pipes, cans of paints, bottles, beer cans, woodchips, and other debris from the days when steamships plied our waters. The seafloor has 200 years of rubbish on it. Hopefully information such as this is the first step in influencing social attitudes towards rubbish disposal,” said Dr Tim O’Hara.

One of the key outcomes of the voyage will be maps of seafloor life, which be used by governments to ensure that they are protecting the marine environment in the long term. Maps created using sonar, coupled with underwater camera vision, have revealed a diverse seascape of rocky plains, huge canyons and undersea mountains. Large areas of the recently created Commonwealth Marine Reserves have been mapped for the first time. 

"We are the custodians for this piece of the Earth and it is really important that we have baseline data so that we can protect it from the impacts of climate change, rubbish and other human activity" Dr Tim O'Hara

More important findings from this research will be released in the coming months as data and specimens are analysed in laboratories around Australia. 

About Sampling the Abyss

Initiated by Museums Victoria, Sampling the Abyss was a month-long voyage on the Marine National Facility research vessel Investigator bringing together scientists from Museums Victoria, CSIRO and other Australian and international museums and research agencies. Funding for this voyage was provided by the CSIRO Marine National Facility and National Environmental Science Program, Marine Biodiversity Hub.

The voyage departed Bell Bay (Launceston, Tasmania) on 15 May and visited seven Commonwealth marine reserves (CMRs) – from the Freycinet CMR off eastern Tasmania to the Coral Sea CMR off central Queensland – before finishing in Brisbane on 16 June.

About Museums Victoria

Museums Victoria (MV) is a large Australian public museum organisation which includes Melbourne Museum, Scienceworks, the Immigration Museum and the Royal Exhibition Building. As the state museum for Victoria, MV is responsible for looking after the State collection of 17 million items. Research, in the fields of science, humanities and Indigenous cultures, uses the museum’s collection to further our knowledge of the cultural and natural history of Victoria and beyond.

Participants on this voyage are from the following institutions:

Museums Victoria

CSIRO (NCRA + O&A)

CSIRO (Marine National Facility)

Australian Museum

Queensland Museum

Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

Natural History Museum (UK)

Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (France)

University of Louvain (Belgium)

P.P. Shirshov Institute of Oceanology (Russia)

University of Vienna (Austria) (sponsored by the INDEEP network of Deep-Sea Scientists)

Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (sponsored by INDEEP)​

Portrait of Anna Quinn
Anna Quinn
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