New tech showcases rarely seen underwater Antarctic world

By Kawe Roes

Click on the video above to check out this rarely seen part of the Earth. VIDEO/BOXFISH RESEARCH

A piece of Aotearoa technology is being used to support Antarctic scientists to capture fascinating footage of life beneath the ice in McMurdo Sound in the Ross Sea. 

The stunning footage is just a snippet of what was recorded during 21 hours underwater this season.

On the ice in front of Scott Base is Ben King of Boxfish Research who captured the footage with the new Boxfish remotely operated vehicle (pictured).  PHOTO/ANTARTICA NEW ZEALAND

This year, as part of her research into the Ross Sea region Marine Protected Area, Dr Regina Eisert partnered with Boxfish Research to study Type-C killer whales with a new kind of remotely operated vehicle (ROV).

It includes Adélie penguins, whales, Weddell seals, bright red octopus and a glowing ctenophore.

The Weddell seals drop down a cut in the ice in the Ross Sea PHOTO/BOXFISH RESEARCH

University of Canterbury marine mammal expert, Eisert says the technology is a game changer for marine science, as it is safer and has a wider scope than can be achieved by scuba divers. 

“Before this, I feel that my view of marine animals was quite biased.  We would observe penguins waddling along and seals sleeping on the ice and whales on the surface, but they spend most of their lives in the water and this is the important stuff to see.

“We got confirmation of the overlap between penguins and Type-C killer whales, the ROV captured unconcerned penguins freely entering and exiting the water in the presence of theses whales, and being ignored by them,” she says.

The Boxfish ROV carried out 15 dives, gathered 21 hours of footage and reached depths of 210 metres this season.

A mass of Adélie penguins rush into the water hunting out their next meal PHOTO/BOXFISH RESEARCH

Boxfish co-founder Ben King travelled to Antarctica to drive the device and see how it would perform in the extreme cold.

“This season went exceptionally well and there is scope for us to take it further in years to come," he says.                                                                     

“Alongside killer whale surveying we did some environmental monitoring around the sea floor near Scott Base and could go to many more sites.”

A killer whale off the coast of Antartica getting ready to breach to take in the air. PHOTO/BOXFISH RESEARCH

Antarctica New Zealand Chief Science Advisor Dr Fiona Shanhun says the footage showcases an underwater Antarctic world which is rarely seen.

“The possibility of using this technology to support future research projects is exciting,” she says.

Eisert’s research is supported by Antarctica New Zealand and a Pew Marine Conservation Fellowship.

About the Ross Sea Marine Protected Area.

The Ross Sea region is one of the most pristine marine environments in the world and now hosts the largest Marine Protected Area (MPA).  In December 2017, the Ross Sea Marine Protected Area was formed, covering 1.55 million square kms of which 1.12 million kms is a no-fishing zone.

At different times of the year the region is home to more than 30% of the world’s Adélie penguins, around quarter of all emperor penguins, around half the Ross Sea killer whales and rare and vulnerable benthic species including sponges which can live for 500 years.

It is also a breeding ground and habitat for Antarctic toothfish.  The Ross Sea MPA requires active research and monitoring to ensure it provides effective protection for its unique ecosystem.