Unveiling the mysteries of the Deep

22 December 2009 | Photos

Sarah Gotheil of IUCN’s Marine Programme has a job many people would envy. She was part of an expedition to unveil the mysteries of seamounts in the Indian Ocean.

Sarah joined a team of marine conservation experts onboard a Norwegian research vessel in November. They spent six weeks sailing along the southwest Indian Ocean Ridge, studying seamounts – mountains that rise from the ocean floor and are home to extremely rich marine life. Sarah has been battered by gale force winds, sailed alongside humpback whales and seen some fascinating species from tiny transparent animals that look like scorpions to two metre-long fish. It has been an adventure of a lifetime.

“This expedition, which was actually my first time on a research vessel, has been a fascinating experience. I was not exactly sure about what to expect, and was amazed by the beauty and the diversity of species that we caught,” says Sarah. “It is quite exciting to think that we have traveled to an area that has been little studied for its biology, so our contribution to the global knowledge of the Indian Ocean and understanding of seamounts is really meaningful. We hope to have discovered a few species new to science, which will be confirmed in a few months after some identification work has been done".

“I also find it gratifying to know that this work is not an isolated scientific trip, but will directly feed into conservation and management recommendations. These types of journeys are not only about science, they are also a social experience. I was apprehensive about being stuck in a confined area for six weeks with 30 other people, but it actually went really well! I was lucky enough to be in charge of the communications and outreach work, and also got a chance to interview everyone on board. I find people’s stories captivating, even more so with such an international team. I updated the cruise blog daily, wrote a weekly diary for BBC Earth News, and took many pictures, including of the weird and intriguing species that we’ve caught.”

The team was trying to identify why commercial fish stocks are found on the southwest Indian Ocean Ridge, how important the seamounts are to other marine life, including birds and whales, and to make their findings available to the fishing industry and fisheries managers. The overall aim is to improve conservation and management of marine resources in the area.

“Through our study we hope to confirm the conservation benefits of protecting seamount features on the ridge and will inform future management of high seas deep-sea ecosystems globally,” Sarah explains

Sarah joined IUCN in 2005 and helps coordinate projects dealing with ocean governance, marine protected areas and western gray whale conservation. She received a degree in Social Sciences from the University of Lausanne, Switzerland and wrote her thesis on the ACCOBAMS Agreement (the Convention for the conservation of cetaceans in the Mediterranean and Black Seas). She has also worked as a volunteer for several years in the field of marine species conservation. As an active member of a Swiss-based NGO that deals with the conservation of cetaceans, she had the opportunity to participate in sailing expeditions in the Mediterranean for the census of whales and dolphins. She also worked for a few months in a marine park in the Dutch Antilles, where she coordinated an awareness raising campaign on sea turtles.

Read Sarah’s blog: http://seamounts2009.blogspot.com/
Seamount Diary on the BBC’s Earth News:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_8363000/8363108.stm