I stood on the sidewalk swaying on solid ground, a phenomenon dubbed “dock rock” or “land sickness” by those who’ve spent time on boats. I looked over my shoulder at the big blue and white ship from which I had just disembarked with my usual grace and style. High tide made the gangway incredibly steep; I lost my footing and slid all the way down with my gear to the chorus of onlookers gasping.
After being at sea, a combination of exhaustion, adrenaline, and homesickness fueled a multitude of feelings
. With a lump in my throat, I thought I might never get the chance to do something so unbelievably cool again. I had just spent two weeks with truly amazing people exploring the ocean floor – with robots.
Last summer, I served as a science communication fellow on board the Oceanographer Bob Ballard’s Exploration Vessel (E/V) Nautilus.
Our expedition took place in Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary. The 1,296 square mile sanctuary had nearly doubled in size since receiving its designation as a protected place in 1989. Prior to the expedition, the scientists responsible for managing the sanctuary lacked the resources to fully explore and understand what lived on the ocean floor, miles below the surface. We traveled along the Continental Shelf, exploring underwater canyons and steep cliff faces, collecting video footage and samples that were sent to hundreds of researchers around the country.
These observations were aided by two remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), or robots, named Hercules and Argus. The ROVs work in tandem, tethered to the ship and each other. Argus absorbs the ship’s movements and shines bright lights down on Hercules as it performs delicate maneuvers and operations below. Hercules is outfitted with multiple high definition cameras, a Kraft Predator arm, and a host of sampling tools that aid the Nautilus team in their mission to explore the biology, geology and archeology of wild and unexplored places in the ocean.
Whenever the robots are deployed the video is live streamed all over the world, allowing students, scientists, and fans to explore with the team. This technology takes humans to locations too costly, distant, and dangerous for in-person observations like active underwater volcanoes and hydrothermal vents.
Using the Nautilus’s technology and expertise in Cordell Bank, NOAA scientists were able to identify new deep sea habitats teaming with life. There were jellies, sharks, skates, and over 40 species of rockfish, swimming among deep sea corals and sponge communities – it was a remarkable experience from beginning to end. And, it turns out that last summer was not the last time I’d set foot on the Nautilus.
From August 20 to September 13, I’ll rejoin Ballard’s Corps of Exploration as lead science communication fellow for a joint mission with NASA, NOAA, and various academic centers. The expedition is part of a multi-year SUBSEA (Systematic Underwater Biogeochemical Science and Exploration Analog) Research Program.
We’ll be exploring the Lō’ihi Seamount – an active underwater volcano off the coast of Hawaii. The hydrothermal venting and geologic features found at Lō`ihi (sounds like low-ee-hee) are thought to be similar to what scientists expect to find on other, distant, ocean worlds. We will be testing equipment and protocols as well as collecting samples and video to learn more about this geologically active and unique environment.
NASA is watching how the oceanographic community works in unusual environments in order to develop protocols for space exploration. When astronauts eventually make it to distant planets, it is unlikely that they will be able to land their spacecraft and walk on the surface right away. Using robotic technologies similar to what is used in ocean science, those astronauts will conduct their observations from the relative safety of their spacecraft – just like many ocean explorers here on Earth.
In order to allow a very large team of scientists and collaborators to participate from land, most of our dives will run from midnight to 4 p.m., Hawaiian time (HST). You can follow these dives online at www.nautiluslive.org and updates will be posted regularly on the Nautilus’s Twitter feed.
I’ll be standing watch from midnight to 4 a.m. and noon to 4 p.m. – moderating the questions coming in from the audience and helping translate the complexities of this work whenever the robots are deployed.
Last summer, I had no idea what to expect as I nervously put on my headset and sat down at my station for my first watch shift. Over the subsequent hours and days, I learned about the science and biology of the deep ocean and the technology and teamwork that took us to this otherworldly place. I saw my first octopuses in the wild, graneledone boreopacifica, who brood their eggs for 4 years, and I learned that skate egg pouches are called mermaid’s purses. As I prepare to head back out, the work is more familiar, but I’m just as eager to see new and exciting wonders.
I hope you’ll come along and explore this blue planet with us!
Jenny Woodman, Proteus founder and executive director, is a science writer and educator living in the Pacific Northwest. Follow her on Twitter @JennyWoodman.
Why protect 600,000 square miles that most people will never see? by Jenny Woodman
Mapping the Deep: The Extraordinary Story of Ocean Science by Robert Kunzig
Notes from the Nautilus by Jenny Woodman