'Cucumber-cam' assists conservation

The swimming sea cucumber Enypniastes eximia.
The swimming sea cucumber Enypniastes eximia is a deep purple-red colour which, in the deep ocean, makes it difficult for predators to see. (Photo: NOAA)
Fisheries technician works on the underwater camera.Two of the deep-sea cameras ready to be deployed on longlines. The deep-sea swimming sea cucumber Enypniastes eximia taken by the Antarctic Division-designed camera in the waters around Heard Island.

New underwater camera technology developed by Australian researchers is shining a light on previously unseen species in the Southern Ocean, to help improve marine conservation.

For the first time, a swimming sea cucumber, Enypniastes eximia, also known as a 'headless chicken monster', has been filmed in deep Southern Ocean waters off Heard Island and the McDonald Islands.

The unusual creature, which has only ever been filmed before in the Gulf of Mexico, was discovered using an underwater camera system developed for commercial long-line fishing by the Australian Antarctic Division.

Australian Antarctic Division fisheries scientist Dr Dirk Welsford, said the cameras are capturing important data that informs the international body managing the Southern Ocean – the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).

“The housing that protects the camera and electronics is designed to attach to toothfish longlines in the Southern Ocean, so it needs to be extremely durable,” Dr Welsford said.

“We needed something that could be thrown from the side of a boat, and would continue operating reliably under extreme pressure in the pitch black for long periods of time.

“Some of the footage we are getting back from the cameras is breathtaking, including species we have never seen in this part of the world.

“Most importantly, the cameras are providing information about the habitats and organisms on the sea floor where this type of fishing occurs, and the sensitive areas that should be avoided.”

Dr Welsford said the discovery of the sea cucumber, about 1600 metres below the surface, off Heard Island, was a surprise.

“Sea cucumbers typically rest on the sea floor, but this one is interesting because it has fins and it swims.

“Scientists in the United States christened it the ‘headless chicken monster’ because it looks a bit like a chicken, it’s got wings and it’s about the size of a basketball.”

Dr Welsford said other CCAMLR nations, such as Chile, France, and the United Kingdom are also using the super-strengthened camera devices, which are fabricated at the Antarctic Division’s headquarters in Tasmania.

“It’s a simple and practical solution that is directly contributing to improving sustainable fishing practices,” Dr Welsford said.

The data collected from the cameras were presented at the annual CCAMLR meeting in Hobart in October.

David Reilly and Nisha Harris
Australian Antarctic Division