The Aeolian Islands north of Sicily are volcanic islands surrounded by waters filled with underwater volcanoes.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site is a popular tourist destination, but the waters around them haven't received much attention from researchers. That was until Oceana, an international organization devoted to protecting and restoring the oceans of the world, launched a one-month expedition into these waters.
Exploring seven different areas around the Aeolians, Oceana researchers found many types of coral, some of them critically endangered, and habitats shared by a variety of sea creatures, including sharks and loggerhead turtles.
Regrettably, they also found signs of human activities that were negatively impacting the ecosystem.
"Although the deep-sea lies just off the coasts of the Aeolian Islands, these waters are largely unexplored, and hide very rich biodiversity," Ricardo Aguilar, senior research director for Oceana in Europe, said in a statement. "We have found tens of features that are internationally protected in the Mediterranean, from impressive coralligenous beds to loggerhead turtles and many species of corals and molluscs. However, we also found widespread impacts of human activity, even in the farthest and deepest areas, and it is vital that we stop harming marine life if we are to preserve the uniqueness of this part of the Tyrrhenian Sea."
Oceana explorers went just over 981 meters (3,218 feet) deep to collect samples, photographs and film of the marine life in the area. They studied isolated seamounts, underwater banks and hydrothermal vents formed by the area's volcanic activity.
The deepest depths contained forests of bamboo coral (pictured above) and species a of sea star — Zoroaster fulgens — that had never been seen in the Mediterranean Sea. A fish species, Gobius kolombatovici, that was previously believed to only occur in the northern Adriatic Sea, was also found.
Intermediate depths contained black coral (pictured above) filled with shark eggs, as well as red and yellow tree corals. Both types of those corals are considered to be threatened in the Mediterranean.
At the shallowest depths, explorers found red algae that provided support for dense gardens of sea fans, and plenty of fish.
The data the divers collected will be used to create a proposal for a protected marine area to safeguard the area, both for the wildlife that thrives there and the local economy, which benefits from the marine resources.
Protections will be a boon to the waters. Divers discovered plenty of evidence of human activity harming the environment here. Discarded fishing gear, including hooks, lines, traps and nets were found alongside normal trash, like plastic tableware, bottles and tires. In some instances, the waste was responsible for the death of marine life, like a dead loggerhead turtle a diver found floating in the area, a fishing hook still in its mouth.
Cleaning up the area and further protecting it will help sea creatures survive, including this yellow coral (Leptopsammia pruvoti).
Cleaning up the waters around the Aeolian Islands will also help with the night life of its marine animals. This hermit crab, for instance, was spotted during a night dive.
Marine organisms, like the European fan worm (Sabella spallanzanii), benefit from the Aeolian Islands' nutrient-rich waters. Keeping those waters pristine will help.
Efforts to protect the Aeolian Islands' waters have been underway since the early 1990s. Those efforts were largely unsuccessful until the Blue Marine Foundation joined forces with the Aeolian Island Preservation Fund to work more aggressively for a marine protected area designation.
The Italian government committed to the designation in 2016, and the Blue Marine Foundation says the designation will "be more efficient and effective than existing Italian models in terms of ambition of zoning, management and innovative solutions."