Rare glass sponge reefs on B.C. Coast to star in live streamed expedition

The kind of glass sponge found in B.C. was thought to have died off 40 million years ago.

Scientists' remotely operated exploration of reefs deep underwater in Hecate Strait to be live streamed

These finger goblet sponges in Hecate Strait are just one of the rare glass sponge species that have been discovered. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

People around the world can catch a glimpse of the rare glass sponge reefs found in the B.C. waters over the next week or so.

A team of scientists will be live streaming research conducted deep underwater in Hecate Strait.

The kind of glass sponge found in B.C. was thought to have died off 40 million years ago until fragile living reefs were discovered near Haida Gwaii in 1987.

Earlier this year, the federal government created a Marine Protected Area to help conserve them.

But scientists need to know more about the reefs to provide that protection, said Stephanie Archer, a post-doctoral fellow with Fisheries and Oceans Canada  based in Nanaimo.

"One of the things that comes with being a marine protected area is increased monitoring and protection from Fisheries and Oceans," she said.

"Until we know how the ecosystem works, and what it looks like when it is healthy, we won't be able to know what we should be looking for signs of it not being healthy."

Although glass sponges look like plants, they are actually animals and are the world’s oldest multi-cell organisms. The glass sponge was thought to have gone extinct 40 million years ago, but the animal was discovered in B.C. in 1987. Some of B.C.'s glass sea sponge reefs are thought to be 9,000 years old. (Neil McDaniel)

Expedition live stream

Starting on May 12, the expedition team will use a remotely operated vehicle to explore the reefs deep underwater in Hecate Strait.

The researchers will blog and live stream video of the reefs as they explore them.

"Because they are so deep and so remote, opportunities to study them have been few and far between," said Alexandra Barron, the ocean conservation manager for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society in B.C.

"Live streaming this expedition brings the public the opportunity to see these sponge reefs come to life before their eyes and actually see what the scientists are working on."

Sponges may look like plants or even geological formations, but they're actually animals — among the oldest branches of animal life on Earth.

Glass sponges build skeletons out of silica or glass, and some — including the species on B.C.'s coast — are great reef builders.

With files from Lisa Johnson