Using a unique combination of marine robotics and ship-based measurements, the Southampton, UK-based National Oceanography Centre (NOC) produced a three-dimensional picture of submarine canyon habitats. The information captured in the new set of maps ranges in scale from the 200-km canyon down to the size of an individual cold-water coral polyp. The data will be used to inform the management of the only English Marine Conservation Zone in deep water.

Submarine canyons are some of the most complex deep-sea environments on this planet, and are known to be potential biodiversity hotspots. Similar to canyons on land, submarine canyons can have steep flanks, with vertical cliffs and overhanging rock formations. Until recently, these parts were out of reach for traditional types of marine equipment.

By using unique robot technology to collect data in the "hard-to-reach" areas, the expedition will lead to a better understanding of the biodiversity patterns in the canyon and of the processes that drive them.

Echo-sounders on the RRS James Cook were used to create a 200-km map of the canyon, with a 50-m pixel resolution. Using a sideways-directed echo-sounder, the Autosub6000 robot-sub, maintained by the NOC, mapped vertical walls within the canyon with a resolution of 3-5m per pixel.

At the same time, Isis, the NOC-maintained Remotely Operated Vehicle, was lowered from the RRS James Cook on a tether to record high definition video and to collect biological and geological samples from vertical and overhanging locations. Echo-sound data, collected with Isis, was also used to create the most detailed map of the three, with a resolution of 10-20cm.

The NOC team has mapped cliffs up to 150-m high and 1.6-km long, in some locations down to centimeter-scale resolution.


Also: Learn about Validation for Remote Ocean Imaging.