Whales are following a highway that runs through a 'lost world' of underwater volcanoes off the coast of Tasmania

Humpback whales congregated above the seamounts. Picture: Dr Eric Woehler

A “previously unseen and spectacular” underwater world of dead volcanoes has been found by Australian National University scientists off the east coast of Tasmania.

The CSIRO research vessel Investigator was on a 25-day mission mapping the seafloor 400km off Tasmania’s east coast when it discovered seamounts rising up to 3000 metres.

The hills and valleys were likely formed many millennia ago by ancient volcanic activity.

Dr Tara Martin, from the CSIRO mapping team, said the chain rose up “from an abyssal plain about 5000m deep” and “offered a window into a previously unseen and spectacular underwater world”.

“The seamounts vary in size and shape, with some having sharp peaks while others have wide flat plateaus, dotted with small conical hills that would have been formed by ancient volcanic activity,” Martin said.

And research indicates whales may use the seafloor features as navigational aids during their migration.

The volcano highway off the coast of Tasmania. Image: Australian National University/CSIRO
The volcano highway off the coast of Tasmania. Image: Australian National University/CSIRO

Dr Eric Woehler from BirdLife Tasmania, was on Investigator with a team conducting seabird and marine mammal surveys.

He said at least 28 individual humpback whales visited the boat in a single day, followed by a pod of 60-80 long-finned pilot whales the next.

“We also saw large numbers of seabirds in the area including four species of albatross and four species of petrel,” Woehler said.

The team now believe the seamounts are a “biological hotspot” and may act as an important signpost on an underwater highway for whales moving from their winter breeding to summer feeding grounds.

The range will be studied more later this year when Investigator returns to the region for research voyages in November and December.

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