Expedition finds new humpback breeding ground and sends first deep divers to Amazon Reef

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  • A number of marine species, from whales and dolphins to sea turtles and sharks, are known to migrate through the waters off the coast of French Guiana, the same biodiversity-rich waters that harbor the Amazon Reef, which was discovered in 2016.
  • Scientists with the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) onboard the Greenpeace ship Esperanza discovered and documented humpbacks as well as tropical whale species feeding and breeding in the area, which they say is a first.
  • As part of the same expedition, the first dives down to the Amazon Reef were undertaken in order to document the reef ecosystem via high-resolution photography and collect biological samples.

A scientific expedition launched by environmental NGO Greenpeace has discovered a new humpback breeding ground off the coast of French Guiana and sent the first-ever deep divers down to the Amazon Reef.

A number of marine species, from whales and dolphins to sea turtles and sharks, are known to migrate through the waters off the coast of French Guiana, the same biodiversity-rich waters that harbor the Amazon Reef, which was discovered in 2016. Scientists with the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) onboard the Greenpeace ship MY Esperanza observed several different species of marine megafauna during the expedition, including Bryde’s Rorquals, false and pygmy killer whales, silky sharks, Melon Head dolphins, and spotted dolphins.

The scientists also discovered and documented humpbacks as well as tropical whale species feeding and breeding in the area, which they say is a first.

A school of fish in the Amazon Reef. To study marine life in the area, French scientists from the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) are with Greenpeace during the Amazon Reef leg of the Protect the Oceans year-long tour. Photo © Pierre Baelen / Greenpeace.

“This expedition confirms that the region is more than a migratory route for some species; for the first time, we have seen tropical whales feeding in this area,” Olivier Van Canneyt, a marine biologist with CNRS, said in a statement. “We also observed humpback whales with their young; their presence confirms that it is also a vital place of breeding and breastfeeding. French Guiana waters are a crucial place for the survival of many cetacean species.”

Humpback whale in the Amazon Reef, seen from the MY Esperanza. Photo © Pierre Baelen / Greenpeace.
Melon-headed Dolphins in the Amazon Reef. Whales, sharks, and dolphins live or travel through the Amazon Reef area. Photo © Pierre Baelen / Greenpeace.

As part of the same expedition, the first dives down to the Amazon Reef were undertaken in order to document the reef ecosystem via high-resolution photography and collect biological samples.

Stretching across 9,500 square kilometers (or nearly 3,700 square miles) and extending all the way from French Guiana’s waters south to Maranhão State in northern Brazil, the Amazon Reef is a reef system located where the Amazon River meets the Atlantic Ocean. The Amazon River carries a lot of mud and sediment by the time it empties into the Atlantic, which makes the ocean surface waters nutrient-rich and well-suited to supporting life, but also quite turbid, allowing little to no light to penetrate.

Mesophotic coral of the Caryophylliidae family. Photo taken at 100 meters depth on the Amazon Reef. Photo © Alexis Rosenfeld / Greenpeace.

“These dives are particularly challenging: the water is loaded with sediments from the Amazon river, currents are very strong and we have no visibility when we start descending,” Alexis Rosenfeld, a photographer and one of six professional deep divers who participated in the dives, said in a statement. “But it’s totally worth it when the halo of my light beams reveals the Amazon Reef. This is a haven of life, a treasure of biodiversity explored for the first time by humans and whose mystery is only just being revealed.”

The Brazilian National Petroleum Agency has estimated that as many as 14 billion barrels of oil may lie under the ocean floor near the Amazon Reef. The Brazilian government is looking to open the area to oil exploration, which prompted Greenpeace to launch a campaign in 2017 aimed at protecting the Amazon Reef. That same year, Greenpeace released the first-ever underwater photos of the reef system, taken by crew aboard a submarine launched from the Esperanza.

First HD picture in the Amazon Reef, showing Mesophotic coral of the Caryophylliidae family. Photo taken at 100 meters depth. Photo © Alexis Rosenfeld / Greenpeace.
Amazon Reef, captured during a deep dive. This photo of mesophotic reef was taken at a depth of 100 meters on the Amazon Reef. Photo © Alexis Rosenfeld / Olivier Bianchimani / Greenpeace.

You can listen to John Hocevar, a marine biologist and director of Greenpeace USA’s oceans campaigns, discuss what it was like to pilot the submersible vehicle and be one of the first humans to ever see the Amazon Reef with their own eyes on a June 2017 episode of the Mongabay Newscast.

British oil giant BP is currently seeking the environmental licenses it needs to drill off the northern coast of Brazil. Brazilian regulators denied French company Total the licenses it needed to drill near the Amazon Reef last year, but Greenpeace says that BP could start drilling as soon as this year.

“We’re in a climate emergency: we just can’t afford to drill and burn more oil. As a comparison, even if deforestation in the Amazon forest ended tomorrow, if we burn the estimated reserves of the Amazon Reef region, it would be the same as continuing to deforest the Amazon for another eight years,” François Chartier of Greenpeace’s Protect the Oceans campaign said in a statement. “It’s clear that the climate crisis is also an ocean crisis. Healthy oceans are critical in tackling climate change, and drilling for oil here could be ruinous for both our oceans and for our climate.”

Divers return from an exploration in the 100 meter zone. The water is loaded with sediments but the visibility is still good. They reach the surface in three hours. Photo Photo © Alexis Rosenfeld / Greenpeace.

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This story first appeared on Mongabay

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