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Humpback whales, sharks and a massive crab - the Southwest Pacific expedition begins!

Humpback whales, sharks and a massive crab - the Southwest Pacific expedition begins!

By Vaughn Filmer
Monday, 31 July 2017

We’re just a few days into our six-week marine expedition around the Southwest Pacific but it seems like much longer. A lot has happened in a short amount of time.

Our team of researchers and scientific divers gathered in Noumea and before we could head off Auckland Museum’s Dr Tom Trnski and Severine Hannam had to work through the paperwork and permits for the Noumea – Suva leg of the expedition.

Through the round window: the view from our ship the Braveheart while we were docked in Noumea.

Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

We all embarked then disembarked to clear immigration, our divers carried out a test dive and then it was time for a pre-expedition briefing which included a discussion about the nasties to look out for underwater. Some of the nasties on the watchlist: crown of thorns starfish (they get their name from their venomous thorn-like spines) and sting rays - which we’d already spotted near the wharf.

After final preparations we were ready to set off and after 10 hours of sailing overnight from the lagoon on New Caledonia we anchored at Banc de l’Orne.

The day dawned clear with dive-friendly conditions and our researchers, including 12 divers on the reef, have already recorded approximately 75 different species of fishes - the most abundant being damsel fish. A highlight to date for Tom (an ichthyologist or fish expert) is an as-yet unidentified 2cm scorpion-fish-like species. Over 40 different invertebrates specimens have also been collected, sorted and catalogued.

Diving at Banc de l’Orne: our researchers recorded approximately 75 different fish species in and around the reef at Banc de l’Orne.

Richard Robinson

We were also incredibly fortunate to enjoy the company of humpback whales during our time at Banc de l’Orne. First we were greeted by a humpback whale swimming alongside the ship as we ate our breakfast and then a number or humpbacks were surfacing and breaching throughout the day.

Our nine baited remote underwater videos (or BRUVs) have already recorded three species of shark including grey reef, white tip reef, and sandbar. Everything recorded by the BRUVs on our expedition will make an important contribution to worldwide efforts to assess coral reef sharks and rays and to build greater understanding of how the impact of changing ecosystems.

We are also using a fish trap to build a picture of different species at greater depths - we dropped the trap to 259m and found moray eels (which are generally regarded as a shallow dwelling species), a good size deep water grouper and a massive crab – which is being picked as the highlight to date for a number of the others on board! 

Auckland Museum’s Natural Sciences Collection Manager Severine Hannam examines the crab found in the expedition’s fish trap.

As I write this it’s nearly 10pm at night and we are now at anchor off the South-Western coast of Walpole Island but the research team is still working - cataloguing and photographing samples and reorganising the gear ahead of what promises to be another busy day.

Delving a little deeper: this massive crab is one of our favourite discoveries so far - found when we dropped the fish trap to 259m.

Richard Robinson

  • Post by: Auckland Museum

    Auckland War Memorial Museum tells the story of New Zealand, its people, and their place in the Pacific.