Press Release July 6th, 2014: At a time when the pressure of human activities upon marine ecosystems is increasing, it is important to gather baseline information worldwide which will enable assessing future anthropogenic impacts on these communities. This is the primary goal of ‘Project Baseline’, a Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) initiative which cultivates participating divers into citizen scientists who document underwater environments and cultivate relationships with research institutions and management entities to integrate their observations into a broader scientific understanding. Project Baseline currently manages projects in 23 countries all over the world.
To build on this effort, a Global Expedition sponsored by Brownies Global Logistics and GUE is currently under way aboard the Pacific Provider, which will cross the Atlantic from Florida and enter the Mediterranean, visiting several important marine sites along the way: including the BahamaBank, the Florida coast, the Azores, the Algarve in the south of Portugal, and the Calanques along the south coast of France. The Azores leg of the Global Expedition of Project Baseline was successfully completed yesterday. The expedition team including two Triton submarines that operate to a depth of 300 meters, a deep technical dive team that operates to a depth of 100 meters, a shallow dive team operating above 40 meters depth, and scientists from the Institute of Marine Research and the Department of Oceanography and Fisheries of the University of the Azores (IMAR/DOP-UAç), who contributed with the scientific component of the mission, namely establishing the scientific goals and conducting biological sampling at shallow depths. Two researchers from CCMAR- University of Algarve also joined this expedition, integrating the diving team. Together, the team conducted detailed video surveys and collected important samples from some of the most charismatic marine areas of the Azores. These included the Princess Alice Bank, the Pico-Faial Channel, Calheta do Nesquim (south coast of Pico), D. João de Castro Bank and the Formigas Bank. At least a dozen submarine dives were conducted to depths as deep as 200 meters. Eight technical dives utilizing specialized equipment that lets humans survive and operate at extreme depths for many hours at a time were conducted to depths ranging between 70 and 90 meters for a total of approximately 30 hours underwater per diver.
Ten additional dives were performed at depths between 40 meters and the surface using standard SCUBA equipment. Dozens of species, including some invasive ones, as well as geological underwater formations were documented on video and photo. Several black coral gardens, which are fundamental for the structuring of benthic communities in the Azores, were mapped. Nearly 200 specimens were collected, which will be used for validation of video surveys and habitat predictive models, and for further studies in the scope of ongoing research projects. This will allow for detailed descriptions of the selected sites which will be compared with previous surveys in the cases where they exist and will establish new baselines for the areas that had never been surveyed previously. The following work will take place in the laboratory where scientists, among other tasks, will confirm the identification of the different species to assess biodiversity levels, conduct population genetic studies, attempt the isolation of bioactive compounds, and make a detailed habitat description. Despite the presence of recent fishing gear in some of the protected areas visited, the communities appear healthier than in previous visits, but not yet completely restored. These observations stress the need for a strict respect for the existing regulations, which present a great opportunity for the proper use of the oceans surrounding the Azores.
The success of this mission was accomplished also thanks to the collaboration of the Government of the Azores and the Portuguese Navy, who supported all the legal procedures required for the campaign.
-Image credit: Frederico Abecasis David Cardigos