The Under The Pole team looked at previously unexplored underwater habitat in the research captured in the film Deep Sea Polynesia. Photo: Franck Gazzola
The Under The Pole team looked at previously unexplored underwater habitat in the research captured in the film Deep Sea Polynesia. Photo: Franck Gazzola

Depths of oceanic discovery explored at film festival

REPORTS of coral bleaching can seem like a frightening sign of what’s to come for some of our most precious ecosystems.

But a team of scientists and storytellers have been working to find out more about the corals that live in the deeper parts of the world’s oceans, and whether what can be found there holds any hope for shallow-water reefs.

Resulting from a 12-month leg of a four-year expedition focused on the twilight zone – between 30 and 150 metres below the ocean surface, Deep Sea Polynesia will be featured at the Ocean Film Festival, which screens at the Byron Theatre this month.

Photographer Franck Gazzola, who recently relocated to Byron Bay, was the photographer on the project, run by Under The Pole.

The Under The Pole III expedition in French Polynesia. Photo: Franck Gazzola
The Under The Pole III expedition in French Polynesia. Photo: Franck Gazzola

The expedition group had been historically focused on polar regions but in this film, the team – involving an international team of scientists – casts its gaze to French Polynesia.

“Under the Pole specialises in innovative underwater exploration and what we do is … dive in remote places of the world for scientific purposes,” Gazzola said.

He said a big question remains around how deep corals survive and what diversity exists at depth.

The film looks at the search for those answers, sought in the year-long journey across the five archipelagos of French Polynesia which began in 2018 and ended last year.
“We basically dived on a daily basis in the depth to find these deep corals,” he said.

“Today, the corals as we know it, especially on the Great Barrier Reef, are under threat, bleaching and dying to some extent.

Some exciting discoveries were made on the expedition. Photo: Franck Gazzola
Some exciting discoveries were made on the expedition. Photo: Franck Gazzola

“We know corals are under a lot of threat, especially close to the surface, because that’s where the variation of temperature happens. That’s where the corals do actually struggle to survive.

“They bleach, sometimes they recover and sometimes they die.

“Scientists do know that some corals can live deeper.

“But it’s very hard for them to understand these corals.

“We know very well what’s happening at the surface. We know how corals work at the surface.

“That twilight zone, where the light starts to disappear, is widely unknown to scientists and they do not know how corals survive, how many species are there, what’s the diversity.”

Deep Sea Polynesia looks at whether those deep sea corals can support the survival of reefs near the surface.

“It’s been a game-changer for the scientists in the way they look at the reef,” he said.

“When you look at the reef you cannot consider … the first 20 metres.

“It's a very partial picture.

“There’s been a lot of new things found, new species found.”

Going into the expedition, Gazzola said they expected to find perhaps 20 per cent of the shallow-water corals would be found deeper.

Deep-ocean corals were the subject of research on the expedition. Photo: Franck Gazzola
Deep-ocean corals were the subject of research on the expedition. Photo: Franck Gazzola

But he said 60 per cent of species found close to the surface were present in the depths.

“It’s a massive shift (in understanding); it means those corals close to the surface have an ability to survive down deep, which means when the conditions become a little bit better at the surface these deep corals can help repopulate the surface.”

While it’s just one portion of an expanse of work from the Under the Pole Team, Gazzola said this experience and the discoveries that came with it was “a real highlight”.

“The sense of purpose that everyone had in the mission was enormous because there’s such a sense of urgency around corals that everyone committed to that mission 100 per cent and more,” he said.

“We did hundreds of dives, really really deep sometimes.

“It was very heavy mentally, physically and we did that in the most remote places.

“We felt we were part of something exceptional.”

For his team, the enormity of risk if coral ecosystems aren’t protected weighs heavily, Gazzola said.

Some of the Under The Pole team during the expedition that’s captured in the film Deep Sea Polynesia. Photo: Franck Gazzola
Some of the Under The Pole team during the expedition that’s captured in the film Deep Sea Polynesia. Photo: Franck Gazzola

“About 20 per cent of all ocean species depend on corals so if they die, it’s not just corals that die,” he said.

“It’s the whole ecosystem.

“Corals are the rainforests of the ocean in terms of diversity. There’s a sense of urgency but we’ve seen things … we never thought we’d find, so there is hope.”

But there was heartbreak, too: they began the journey in Mo’orea, near Tahiti in July 2018.

At that time, they were met with a thriving reef. A year later, it was completely white.

“That enthusiasm we had about this reef … which had already recovered from bleaching episodes back 10 or 15 years ago, we thought it was so healthy and a year later it’s on the brink,” he said.

“The environment has the ability to recover, sometimes to thrive, but that balance is very fragile.”

Deep Sea Polynesia will be screened as part of the 2020 Ocean Film Festival, which is at the Byron Theatre on March 13 and 14, 7-10am both days.

Gazzola will be on stage for a Q&A on March 13.

For tickets and more information visit oceanfilmfestivalaustralia.com.au.


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