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Oxford University supports deep-sea expedition in the Maldives

Taking place from September 4 to October 7, the Nekton Maldives mission will deploy two of the most advanced human-occupied submersibles, robotic and autonomous systems, and more than a dozen research technologies. This will make it one of the most varied and technically advanced missions ever undertaken in the Indian Ocean.

Dr Professor Lucy Woodall, Associate Professor of Marine Biology at the University of Oxford and Senior Scientist at Nekton, will lead the international science team. This will build on its expertise in co-developing marine research expeditions to understand the patterns of biological life in deep waters and the consequences of human activities on them.

Associate Professor Woodall said: “This is a very exciting partnership between academic institutions, research foundations and governments. Collaborations like this allow us to design expeditions around a country’s needs and gather the information needed for them to make important decisions about marine conservation and protection. Deep-sea research is an area of ​​science that we have barely scratched the surface of. This expedition will allow us to develop important priority research themes, capturing information such as environmental parameters and benthic mapping, for the very first time in this region of the world.

Coordinated and managed by Nekton, a non-profit research institute based at Begbroke Science Park in Oxford, the expedition is a truly international undertaking, involving a global alliance of 40 organizations with a scientific team drawn from the Maldives, UK , Seychelles, India, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Spain, Greece, Netherlands and Ireland. Ten Maldivian marine scientists have been selected to be the first Maldivian aquanauts to lead more than 30 descents on the mission’s high-tech submersibles, with the mission’s first descent to be led by an all-female team. The Maldivian aquanauts will be announced at a press conference in Male on September 1.

Specific objectives include:

  • Determine the location, health and resilience of life-sustaining coral reefs in the Maldives,
  • Study how ocean life has adapted to historic sea level rise caused by the melting ice of the last Ice Age,
  • Explore the largely unknown and unprotected deep corals and reefs of the Rariphotic Zone, which serve as a refuge for animals from shallower waters,
  • Investigate the relative abundance of the 40 shark species and 18 ray species at the top of the food chain in the Maldives ocean, which act as a key indicator of ocean health,
  • Carry out the first cartographic survey of an underwater mountain in the northern Indian Ocean.

Other Oxford University researchers supporting the mission include:

Dr Paris Stefanoudis, a marine biologist at the University of Oxford and a senior postdoctoral researcher at Nekton, studies the structure and connectivity of fish and deep-sea communities in tropical coral reef ecosystems. He will lead the visual survey and analysis for the Nekton Maldives mission.

Professor Alex Rogers will contribute to field research and support analyzes and publications. His research focuses on the application of molecular tools and traditional taxonomic methods to study the evolution of marine organisms, including the impact of environmental factors on the genetic structure of populations. Professor Rogers is also one of the founding directors of Nekton and the current scientific director of REV Ocean, which generously provides the use of its deep-diving submersible for the mission.

Oliver Steeds, Mission Director and Managing Director of Nekton, said: “Far from being an example of ‘parachute science’, where local researchers are sidelined from field studies in their own country, this whole mission is co- defined and co-delivered with Maldivian partners to meet their national priorities to establish new protected areas on at least 20% of their oceans and to sustainably develop their blue economy.”

Throughout the mission, you can follow the team’s progress on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. As part of their Submarine Live program, from September 27-29, the team will also broadcast a daily live educational broadcast from their mothership, available to all schools, students and teachers.

Images courtesy of Nekton

Omega Seamaster 2 Submersible exploring under Aldabra waters on March 18, 2019 in Aldabra, Seychelles. Part of Nekton’s First Descent Seychelles Expedition in 2019, which was the first systematic survey below diving depth in the Seychelles. Photo credit: Nekton.

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