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Students Discover Deep-Sea Canyon Off Aussie Coast; 'A Deep Cleft In The Continental Shelf' News Service
May 2, 2010 17:49 EST

PERTH, Australia -- A deep-sea canyon new to science has been discovered on the continental shelf near the Montebello Islands by students from The University of Western Australia, James Cook University and the University of Tasmania.

They made the exciting and unexpected discovery on a voyage from Hobart to Broome via Fremantle to determine the biological and physical signature of the ocean.

The group of 14 sea-going oceanography students from the three Australian Universities forming the Australian National Network in Marine Science (ANNiMS) were on a training voyage on board the Marine National Facility the RV Southern Surveyor.

Chief Scientist on the voyage, UWA's Professor Anya Waite, said the Southern Surveyor was fitted with a swath mapper that uses sonar to map the sea floor.

Collecting plankton and studying the Leeuwin Current - the primary focus of the journey - the students were navigating around the oil rigs off the Pilbara coast on the Exmouth Plateau near the Montebello Islands. Some were watching flying-fish and whales when others noticed odd-looking contour lines on the bathymetric chart.

"The students found a deep cleft in the continental shelf," Professor Waite said. "Their measurements also suggested that the canyon might be associated with "upwelling" to the continental shelf, a physical process known to make the surface ocean more productive with plankton, the sea's main fish food."

The area is home to more than 150 species of coral, dugong, many kinds of Indo-Pacific reef fish, four species of turtles, 15 species of seabirds, and 10 species of whales. One of the islands in the group was the site of one of the first European shipwrecks in Australian waters - the British East India Company's Tryal in 1622.