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Putting South Africa on the map in deep-sea research


The International Deep-Sea Symposium is a well-establish forum for members of the international deep-sea science community to meet, discuss, present and share their research.


In her presentation, SAEON’s Lara Atkinson told delegates about her involvement in documenting offshore marine invertebrate species in collaboration with government demersal trawl surveys. (Picture: Lara Atkinson)


Filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence James Cameron shared with delegates his experiences of the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean. Here he emerges from the Deepsea Challenger submersible after his historic solo dive to the deepest spot on Earth. (Picture courtesy of


Colossal squid on display at Te Papa Museum in Wellington, where the symposium was held. (Picture: Lara Atkinson)

By Dr Lara Atkinson, Offshore Marine Scientist, SAEON Egagasini Node


It was with some hesitancy that I set off from Cape Town in December 2012 for a two-day journey to the opposite end of the earth -- to participate and present at the 13th Deep-Sea Biology Symposium in Wellington, New Zealand.

My hesitancy was largely as a result of my belief that our tiny steps towards deep-sea marine research in South Africa could not possibly stand up to the rest of the developed world. What could I possibly provide to the delegates at this conference?

Nonetheless my bags were packed, my ticket purchased and with grateful thanks to SAEON Egagasini’s research funds, I was crossing oceans to learn from the rest of the world about their deep-sea research.

My first views of Wellington were accompanied by clear, blue skies, a gentle breeze and a clear indication of summer sunshine. This was to be the last glimpse of such climatic conditions for the week ahead. It is not called wet, windy Wellington for nothing.

International Deep-Sea Symposium

The International Deep-Sea Symposium has typically been held every three years since 1977 and is a well-establish forum for members of the international deep-sea science community to meet, discuss, present and share their research. It was the first time the Symposium was held in the southern hemisphere.

I was the only South African delegate in attendance, with only one other delegate from Namibia making up the entire southern African representation. This is a clear reflection of the limited true deep-sea research currently underway in southern Africa.

The symposium was hosted at the Wellington Te Papa Museum, where a brand new deep-sea exhibition had just been completed prior to the symposium. A large number of the species on display were very similar to many I have seen from South African waters.

The plenary presentations at the start of each day were inspirational, ranging from a historical overview of deep-sea research in New Zealand from 1865 to 1965 presented by David Pawson (Acting Director of the Natural History Museum, Washington DC) to that of Charles Fisher (Pennsylvania State University) reporting on documented impacts on deep-water corals from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

The plenary presentation that attracted the largest, most spell-bound audience was that of James Cameron, director of the movies ‘Avatar’ and ‘Titanic’, but also the pilot of the Deepsea Challenger, a torpedo-shaped submersible that he assisted in designing and building. This submersible carried him to the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench in March 2012. The Challenger Deep is the deepest point of the world’s oceans, recorded at a depth of 10 923 metres.

Cameron shared with the delegates his adventures in getting to see this barren landscape that only two people had previously laid eyes on in 1960. Even though the actual footage did not arrive until the last 10 minutes of his presentation, he still had the audience mesmerised with his captivating story-telling skills without any need for visual effects.

It was only in the last few allocated minutes that, amidst much excitement, the courier rushed up the stairs to hand over the tape with the precious footage to share with us some glimpses of the deepest habitat in the ocean. From the glimpses we were able to see, the terrain appeared to be very flat, covered in fine sediment and the only life seen at this time being a few ctenophores (comb jellies) and some amphipods a few millimetres in size. The full documentary of this adventure will be released imminently by National Geographic. I will certainly seek out a copy to slowly absorb the fantastical landscape and marine life at these depths.

The rest of the symposium conveyed just as much information and enthusiasm for deep-sea research. Even though South Africa is certainly not one of the world leaders in deep-sea research, I rapidly began to realise that we are indeed on the right track.

Overview of offshore marine research in SA

The presentation I gave provided a brief overview of the history of marine research in South Africa, leading to current day offshore research programmes and my involvement in documenting offshore marine invertebrate species in collaboration with government demersal trawl surveys. Collaborators on this project include representatives from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Department of Environmental Affairs, Iziko Museum and the South African National Biodiversity Institute.

I also provided some information on the extent of current and future pressures on South Africa’s offshore biodiversity and some of the tools (i.e. deep-sea camera) and initiatives we have under development to document and map our offshore biodiversity.

It was only after I had given my presentation and engaged with several complimentary conversations with other delegates that I finally realised, yes, South Africa does have something to offer to the deep-sea research community! Many of the delegates were astounded that with such limited resources, we are still managing to achieve so much and still have a clear focus on conducting research in the offshore environment.

The long trip to New Zealand to attend this symposium was definitely worthwhile, not only for me to learn an immense amount about deep-sea research in other parts of the world, but also for me to put South Africa on the map in this context.

I learnt that researchers from most other parts of the world are also facing a range of obstacles preventing them from making progress as fast as they would like. Perhaps it is just the nature of enthusiastic, passionate researchers? The many small steps forward eventually do lead to larger achievements.

List of websites with useful information on deep-sea research:

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