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The Italian Job…of preserving our coral reefs with Cookson Adventures

Cookson Adventures submersible dives spark conservation programmes to preserve endangered coral reefs off the coast of southern Italy.

Known for its history of crafting world-first travel experiences for its successful clientele, Cookson Adventures has built a reputation for adding important scientific discoveries to expeditions.

In early 2019, a significant donation by a guest led to the discovery of a new species of killer whale in the Southern Ocean, and the British experiential travel company has again broken scientific ground with its latest trip.

Underwater exploration doesn’t come to mind when holidaying on Italy’s coastline, but Cookson has brought together some of Europe’s leading marine scientists, regional universities, marine archaeologists and local officials to facilitate a number of important research dives in a state of the art submersible. The use of the CRUISE SUB 7 submersible in the Gulf of Naples and the Tyrrhenian Sea has revealed a number of major biological, historical and scientific discoveries.

Cookson Adventures facilitated a partnership between the University of Bari’s Department of Biology and the Marine Protected Area of the Ustica Island, building a series of dives into the expedition itinerary of one of its guests. Exploring various locations near Ustica, off the coast of Sicily, at depths of up to 180m, the team found new reefs that boast rare species of black coral, previously unobserved in the area. The two species (from the Antiphataria Order) are typically found in deep-water, tropical zones of the ocean, and play a key role in deep marine ecosystems, helping to attract a variety of other species and enhancing biodiversity.

Dr Frine Cardone, a marine researcher with the University of Bari’s Department of Biology, said, “Thanks to our dives with Cookson Adventures, we have collected data on very interesting deep environment communities around Ustica. The two species of black coral detected during the last dive represent, in particular, a finding of great scientific importance, because their distribution in the Mediterranean is little known today.”

The distribution of black coral in the Mediterranean is as yet poorly studied, with information fragmented and limited to only a few areas. In particular, there is no information on the presence of the two species around Ustica Island. But with this new research, scientists hope to learn more about the impact of fishing activities in the area. Further data collection about the structure and distribution of the black coral forests will define a more complete picture of the status of these species in the Mediterranean Sea, and help establish sound conservation programmes.

Discoveries of unexpected marine life became a recurring theme of the project as further dives were conducted off the island of Ischia. The wall of Sant’Angelo is a natural underwater cliff that descends to 200m below sea level and is inhabited by pristine marine communities untouched by humans. Almost unseen below 100m, a dive into these waters in a submersible with a prominent marine researcher from Naples has unveiled the rich biodiversity of the depths below the typical scuba diving limit.

Among the discoveries were untouched populations of the precious Corallium rubrum (red coral), which has been intensely exploited since antiquity for its use in jewellery at shallower depths. The ecosystem also presented the scientists with interesting findings in the form of high density, centuries-old colonies of alcyonacean (soft corals), as well as schools of sardines, anchovies and bogues.

Dr. Nuria Teixido, Marine Ecologist at Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn, said: “Until recently, the exploration of the mesophotic and aphotic zone of the seas and oceans was severely limited due to the objective difficulty of access for recreational diving. However, the collaboration with Cookson Adventures represents a great opportunity for Italian scientific research for exploring the deep Mediterranean Sea because it is possible to use advanced technologies that are rarely available. These submersible deeper dives offer a glimpse into how Mediterranean communities were in the past and provide a reference point for the future for conservation and scientific purposes.”

Historical discoveries abound too, with the discovery of a new Roman shipwreck in the seas off Ustica. Riccardo Cingillo, an underwater photographer and archaeologist, identified the wreck as a Roman cargo ship, carrying a number of ancient amphora. A report was filed with the Sicilian Superintendent of the Sea (Soprintendenza del Mare) to investigate further.

Furthermore, diving with volcanologists from the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV) in Sicily revealed new evidence on the ocean floor of new volcanic activity related to Stromboli’s deadly eruption on 3rd July 2019.

Adam Sebba, CEO of Cookson Adventures, said, “I’m incredibly proud of our discoveries in southern Italy but equally as excited in knowing that there is so much more to be explored. We have always invited experts onboard our voyages to bring the natural world to life for each and every guest. The benefit of this is two-fold. We’re giving a platform to ground-breaking research and also allowing our explorers to experience hands-on discoveries that are shaping our knowledge of the world today.”

With the ability to build similar dives and conservation projects into its incredible, handcrafted expeditions for clients, Cookson is now offering guests the opportunity to seek out further world-first experiences as part of trips to the region. With a specialist yachting team that has access to a wide variety of superyachts, many with submersible capabilities, Cookson can build an Italian adventure for guests unlike anything that has ever been undertaken before.


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