Pristine Seas

Making Research Discoveries

Picture of Enric Sala with a grouper fish

Photograph by Josep Clotas

While on expedition, the Pristine Seas team conducts comprehensive, interdisciplinary research that examines an entire ecosystem—from microbes and corals to sharks and polar bears. This rigorous, peer-reviewed science component is critical to helping us understand how pristine marine ecosystems function compared to more impacted ecosystems elsewhere in the ocean.

Much of our work entails quantitative in-water surveys of life in the nearshore ecosystem, including fishes, corals, invertebrates, algae, and microbes. In fact, many of the places we visit have never had a comprehensive scientific assessment before, so we often collect specimens that are unknown from the region or new to science.

We’ve also conducted cutting-edge work on better understanding the microbial communities in these remote locations. Microbes, which make up most of the biodiversity on the planet, are rarely examined, and our collaborations with world-class microbial biologists have highlighted the importance of microbes in pristine seas from coral reefs to the far northern Arctic.

To explore the ocean realm beyond diving depths, we use high-tech deep-sea drop cameras. These acrylic spheres are dropped to the depths of the ocean and have greatly expanded our understanding of these unexplored reaches of the deep ocean. During our expedition to the Russian Arctic, our dropcam revealed a surprising passerby: a Greenland shark, uncommon to see as far north as Franz Josef Land. We’ve also explored the open-ocean environment using stereo-baited cameras, which hang in the water column and allow us to count and size species such as tuna, marlin, sharks, and a wide range of open-ocean species that are often overlooked in surveys of remote locations.

Above all, our research on these expeditions has highlighted that pristine marine places function very differently than most of the global ocean. Pristine seas are dominated by top predators such as sharks, jacks, groupers, and polar bears. These species exert a strong influence on the remainder of the ecosystem by making them more efficient and more resilient to disturbances such as storms, disease outbreaks, and, at a larger scale, climate change.

This identification of “inverted biomass pyramids,” where there are more predators than prey, has rewritten the book on how marine ecosystems function and what we have lost. Inverted biomass pyramids can exist because prey species turn over faster due to increased predation, increasing the efficiency of the entire ecosystem. However, due to disruptions to marine ecosystems and food chains, these top predators have been removed from most of the world’s ocean.

But pristine places also show higher levels of resilience. On coral reefs, we’ve found that intact ecosystems have higher recruitment and rapid growth of corals and lower levels of macroalgal overgrowth, coral disease, and outbreaks of coral predators. The microbial communities in pristine locations are diverse, with few pathogens, while impacted ecosystems are dominated by heterotrophs and viruses. These imbalanced microbial communities lead to disease outbreaks and loss of ecosystem function.

Serving as a baseline in comparison to more impacted ecosystems, pristine locations are more resistant to local disturbances like storms and disease outbreaks and are more resilient to global warming and climate change. With each expedition, these living laboratories provide us with insights into what the ocean looked like before humans, and how healthy it could be again.

Support Our Work

Join the cause by donating or signing up for our newsletter with regular updates from the field.