UWA Oceans Institute

Exploring the other unknown

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In early March Professor Malcolm McCulloch and a team of researchers from the UWA Oceans Institute, CSIRO, WA Museum and the Institute of Marine Sciences in Italy led a research expedition to the Perth Canyon on board the R/V Falkor. The team surveyed life in the canyon and conducted baseline studies of deep corals to aid in determining the likely future impacts of a warming sea and ocean acidification.

The UWA Oceans Institute worked with the Schmidt Ocean Institute (owners of the R/V Falkor) based in Hawaii, and outreach officers on board the ship, Verena Schoef and Claire Ross, to implement on an outreach program that connected audiences worldwide. During the 12 day cruise, 13 blogs were posted, 11 dives were live streamed and watched by 10 countries globally, and 32 news stories were generated which included 6 television news items, 21 web and print news stories, and 7 radio interviews. A range of community events, both on board the ship and live via google hangout, were organised and the host organisation website received over 7,832 visits with 24,061 page views during the cruise with unprecedented social media reach. 

Outreach officers on board the ship and Oceans Institute researchers, Verena Schoepf and Claire Ross, share their tales from the deep sea as they facilitate outreach and engagement on an international, online scale.

In March 2015, we set out on an expedition to explore one of the last remaining frontiers on our planet - the largely unknown Perth Canyon, a deep-sea canyon the size of the USA’s Grand Canyon located just a short distance away from Western Australia’s capital. We embarked on this adventure alongside chief investigator Professor Malcolm McCulloch from UWA’s Ocean Institute and eleven other Australian and international researchers on board Schmidt Ocean Institute’s research vessel R/V Falkor. While the main goal of this expedition was to unveil the unknown depths of Perth Canyon using remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), some of us also entered uncharted waters of a different kind. 

“We can’t care if we don’t know”  

We joined the Perth Canyon cruise team as outreach officers reporting “live” from the R/V Falkor, directly connecting the scientists with the general public, the media and the communication specialists at UWA’s Oceans Institute in Perth and the Schmidt Ocean Institute (SOI) in the U.S. Communicating ocean research to audiences around the world and openly sharing the information gained from their research cruises is a core element of SOI’s mission so that people can better appreciate and care about the ocean. “We can't take care of something that we don't understand and we can't care if we don't know” says Wendy Schmidt, who cofounded SOI with her husband and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt in 2009.  

As young scientists, we had not been involved in this type of large-scale public outreach previously and our task as on board outreach officers seemed somewhat daunting at first. However, with the support of the fantastic communication specialists at the Oceans Institute and SOI, we quickly adapted to our new roles. We wrote a daily blog narrating the day-to-day events aboard R/V Falkor, drafted posts for SOI’s Facebook and Twitter accounts and documented the scientific activities in hundreds of photos and many hours of video footage. In addition to live streaming the ROV footage from the canyon’s abyss on YouTube, video-calling via Google Hangout and Skype were some other avenues that were used to connect with the world when we were out at sea. This enabled us, for example, to give a “live” tour of the ship to high school and university students in Perth, allowing them to see science in action and to connect on a whole new level.

St Stephen's
Outreach officers, Claire and Verena talking to St Stephen's School about their experience.

Outreach in the 21st century

Clearly, the very same advances in technology that allow us to explore deep sea canyons are also instrumental in communicating science to audiences around the world. Gone are the days when early explorers in previous centuries returned from their audacious expeditions years later to report their discoveries to an exclusive circle of scientists. Now, anyone with an Internet connection can be a part of amazing scientific discoveries as they happen, rather than hear about them weeks or months later.  

Yet, today’s modern technology and numerous social media platforms have also added a new dimension to the jobs of scientists, who must take on additional roles for scientific outreach. During the Perth Canyon cruise, we were privileged to get invaluable training and first-hand experience that will be of great benefit for our future careers. Even several weeks after the cruise, we have continued our activities by presenting guest lectures at a Marine Science Field Techniques class at UWA and visiting marine science students at St Stephens High School, hoping to inspire the next generation of ocean researchers. This would not have been possible without the fantastic support of Anna-Lee Harry (Oceans Institute) and Carlie Wiener (SOI) who helped us to explore the “other” unknown by guiding us through the many avenues to engage with the world.

Read more about this month's activities at Oceans Online