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The Nautilos project: underwater technologies for innovative, low-cost ocean observation

In the 41st episode of the AtlantECO podcast, we discover Nautilos, a Horizon 2020 funded project that aims to fill the gap in marine observations and improve monitoring capacities and resources. The coordinator, Gabriele Pieri explains that the project's main objective is to monitor the oceans' environmental status, spanning from chemical and biological information from deep ocean physics to surface models for forecasting. Nautilos uses a new generation of cost-effective sensors and samplers that are integrated into existing and new observing platforms such as moored buoys, animal tags and underwater vehicles. The project performs long-term deployments in large scale demonstrations across various European seas, including the Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Atlantic, Baltic, and Mediterranean. Nautilos aims to complement and expand the current tools available at the EU level and provide services and tools to extend the collection of data at higher spatial and temporal resolution. The project also aims to democratise the observation of marine and maritime environments by involving both traditional researchers and non-traditional data users such as citizen scientists.

One of the project’s demonstrators is animal borne instruments, and two of the guests explain what this entails. First, Jorge Fontes discusses the technology behind animal tagging and the sensors that are being developed for it. The platform used is designed to be non-invasive and combines multiple sensors that were already available in the market. The most complex tag includes a high-resolution accelerometer, which allows for the measurement of fine details of animal movement and behaviour. It also includes a satellite positioning system and video camera with lights for deep-diving animals. Another sensor measures dissolved oxygen in the water, which is a critical variable for animals that extract their oxygen from the water. This additional sensor will allow researchers to understand how the availability or unavailability of oxygen will potentially determine how animals use their three-dimensional habitats. Understanding these changes can help predict how they will affect top predators, such as sharks, that control the food chain and have a reverberating impact on the whole ecosystem. The animals themselves dictate where data is collected, allowing researchers to understand the most relevant or essential sections of the habitat.

Then we discuss how Christophe Guinet and his team have been developing a tagging system for marine animals, especially elephant seals, for over 20 years. The tags have incorporated various sensors to monitor the ocean environment and the behaviour of the animals. The latest development is the mini echo sounder, which is attached to seals and can detect particles in the water as they dive. The team hopes to use the information gathered to assess the biological component of the oceans and to understand the ecological consequences of global warming. The team also plans to develop a micro camera triggered by the acoustic detection of the mini echo sounder to provide a visual identification of the particles detected. The system has the potential to provide valuable in-situ measurements of the biological component of the oceans that are currently lacking.

We further discuss tagging of animals for research purposes. Our guests explain how they aim to move away from invasive tagging techniques towards non-invasive methods such as deploying a harness or necklace on sharks and manta rays by free diving. This method is limited to free-swimming animals that allow divers to approach them. So far, they have tagged over 150 sharks and have had no incidents or human losses. However, this method requires skills, such as being a good swimmer and free diver, and carries some risks associated with being in close proximity to sharks. The researchers take basic precautions and avoid pushing the limits to minimise the risk. They also glue tags onto the fur of seals, as the seals shed their fur, allowing the tags to fall off naturally. Non-invasive tagging methods are more widely supported by the community and attract less criticism than invasive methods. However, they also have limitations, such as the inability to tag animals that do not let divers to approach. It is important to note that all activities are done with extreme attention to ethical aspects to guarantee welfare of the animals involved.

Finally, Gabriele explains that the Nautilos project aims to involve citizens in ocean research through various citizen science activities, such as plastic collection, technology calibration, and pollution alerting. The project has developed a citizen science app to support these activities and collect data, which can be shared with existing data aggregators and ocean data platforms in the European Union. The app is currently only available to project partners, but may be released for public download in the future.

To learn more about the Nautilos project and its progress, you can visit their website, which provides information and updates on their activities and links to their social media channels. You can also check out their YouTube channel with videos on the project activities.

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