"The funding now guaranteed by the Deep Sea Research Group of the Okeanos (research center) of the University of the Azores will allow a scientific expedition to explore unknown areas of the Mid-Atlantic Dorsal, over a period of 17 days", says researcher Telmo Mourato, who will lead the mission.

The Mid-Atlantic Dorsal "is a volcanic mountain range that extends from the Arctic to Antarctica, being the dominant topographic structure of the Atlantic Ocean and the most extensive mountain range in the world. The expedition will map the bottoms of this region and characterise the coral communities and sponges that inhabit the ridges and seamounts in Dorsal. It also intends to identify the environmental factors that determine the spatial distribution of deep benthic biodiversity ", the statement said.

Named “iMAR: Integrated assessment of the distribution of Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems along the Middle Atlantic Rim in the Azores region”, the expedition is financed by the Eurofleets + project, from the Horizon 2020 programme, which aims to bring together a fleet of advanced and integrated research vessels for improve coordination and promote the economic use of marine research infrastructure. Eurofleets + comprises 27 research vessels, seven remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), five autonomous submarine vehicles (AUVs) and a portable telepresence unit.

According to the joint note from the Okeanos Center and Azores Deep-Sea Research, this expedition to the deep sea of ??the Azores "will allow to explore areas never visited before" using "complex technological equipment and means, large, specialised oceanographic vessels and crews, which represents high economic costs ".

"This type of means of investigation is rarely available to the national scientific community", points out the statement.

Telmo Morato, a researcher at IMAR (Instituto do Mar) and the Okeanos center at the University of the Azores, highlights the importance of the funding obtained through Eurofleets +, considering that "deep sea research teams in Portugal have had some difficulty in accessing large-scale research ships, which make it possible to work in deeper and more distant waters and with the appropriate technological means ".

"Our regional, national or European research projects are unable to support the costs associated with the daily rate for a vessel of this nature, which can be between 20 and 60 thousand euros", underlines the researcher, cited in the note.

espite the "great advances in knowledge of the deep sea of ??the Azores" achieved in recent years, Telmo Morato considers that "there is still much to know and to discover, so the opportunity generated by Eurofleets + and the (Dutch oceanographic institute) Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ, in the original acronym) to use the research ship Pelagia in the Azores, during the spring of 2021 ", will" contribute to advance the knowledge of the deep sea in Portugal ". Cited in the note, the Minister of the Sea, Ricardo Serrão Santos, stresses that it is "another stage in the rich journey of the IMAR / Okeanos deep sea research team at the University of the Azores", highlighting the work of researchers Telmo Morato and Marina Carreiro- Silva, "for the merit of having obtained this scholarship" that allows "to allocate, for 17 days, the research ship Pelagia".

Marina Carreiro Silva, co-leader of the research group and specialist in cold water corals, also says that "the deep sea of ??the Azores hides a diversity of biological communities unique in the Atlantic Ocean and hosts extensive gardens of cold water corals and fields of sponges ".

Commander João Vicente, Head of the Hydrography Division of the Hydrographic Institute (IH), mentions the high importance of this mission, which will also contribute to the IH SEAMAP 2030 program (Mapping the Portuguese Sea). The “iMAR” expedition also aims to "identify new areas that fit the definition of Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems, determine the environmental status of benthic communities and quantify marine litter" for "the preservation of the natural heritage, the sustainable use of the deep sea and minimise the negative impacts on these very vulnerable ecosystems ". Aodhán Fitzgerald, coordinator of the Eurofleets + project, says that the project "provides access to the most modern research vessels, providing opportunities to study sites yet to be explored and better understand the negative impacts on our deepwater environments".

The expedition will include the participation of researchers from several national and international institutions, namely the Hydrographic Institute, CIIMAR from the University of Porto, the University of Aarhus (Denmark), the National Oceanography Center (United Kingdom), GEOMAR (Germany), the PP Shirshov Institute of Oceanology (Russia), and the University of Vale do Itajaí (Brazil).