Researchers explore one kilometre deep and find a spectacular forest of bamboo coral, rare carnivorous sponges, and species never before seen in the region
Oceana’s one-month expedition has unveiled stunning forests of threatened corals around the underwater volcanoes of the Aeolians Islands, north of Sicily. Researchers explored seven areas of ecological interest and found Critically Endangered bamboo corals, tree corals, and black corals that were full of shark eggs, as well as many other habitats hosting an abundance of species. Based on these findings, Oceana will support the creation of a marine protected area in the archipelago, to preserve the rich natural heritage of its waters.
“Although the deep-sea lies just off the coasts of the Aeolian Islands, these waters are largely unexplored, and hide very rich biodiversity. We have found tens of features that are internationally protected in the Mediterranean, from impressive coralligenous beds to loggerhead turtles and many species of corals and molluscs. However, we also found widespread impacts of human activity, even in the farthest and deepest areas and it is vital that we stop harming marine life if we are to preserve the uniqueness of this part of the Tyrrhenian Sea,” explained Ricardo Aguilar, senior research director for Oceana in Europe.
The data garnered during the one-month expedition will be thoroughly analysed in the coming months in order to support a proposal for a marine protected area to safeguard both this valuable biodiversity and the livelihoods of local people who depend on marine resources. Using the research catamaran Oceana Ranger, Oceana filmed and took photographs up to 981 m deep with an underwater robot and collected samples from the seabed. The at-sea works were planned so that very different environments were studied, including isolated seamounts, underwater banks, and hydrothermal vents formed by volcanic activity.
In the shallowest waters surveyed, scientists found areas dominated by red algae, such as coralligenous and maërl beds, which supported dense gardens of sea fans and large schools of fishes such as horse mackerel. At intermediate depths, black corals full of shark eggs were filmed, as well as red coral and yellow tree corals, both of which are threatened in the Mediterranean.
The deepest areas included incredible forests of bamboo corals, and habitats that were characterised by carnivorous species, such as some sea squirts and sponges. Also documented were a species of sea star (Zoroaster fulgens) never before seen in the Mediterranean and a fish species (Gobius kolombatovici) that was previously believed to only occur in the northern Adriatic Sea.
Worryingly, the expedition also filmed extensive human impacts on marine life. Scientists documented damage caused by lost or intentionally abandoned fishing gears, including a dead loggerhead turtle with a fishing line hooked in its mouth, millennia-old corals partially killed by entangled lines, and discarded traps and nets that continue to capture and destroy marine animals. Domestic waste was commonly encountered, including plastic tableware, glass bottles, batteries, and tyres.
The Oceana expedition will contribute to an existing Aeolian Islands project that is being carried out by the Blue Marine Foundation (BLUE) in collaboration with the Aeolian Islands Preservation Fund, which aims to secure the designation of a marine protected area. The project is made possible thanks to the generous support of IF International Foundation, Pictet Charitable Foundation, SmileWave Fund, and several individual donors.
Learn more: Aeolian Islands Expedition