Uncovering the secrets of the deep with NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer
Remotely operated vehicle Deep Discoverer being brought aboard NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer during a 2016 mission in the Pacific Ocean.
If you’ve ever flown over the ocean and gazed out the window, lingered at the rail on a boat as it left the dock and watched the water gradually darken from a luminous turquoise to a murky midnight blue, or simply sat in your living room, you may have wondered what lies beneath the waves.
NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer, America’s ship for ocean exploration, is working to answer that very question. The 224-ft. vessel is part of the 16-ship NOAA fleet operated, managed and maintained by NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations. The ship’s cutting-edge exploration mission equipment is operated by NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (OER).
From April to July of 2016, Okeanos Explorer conducted a series of three telepresence-enabled ocean exploration cruises in and around the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands (CNMI), Guam and the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument (MTMNM).
Through the use of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), NOAA and partners were able to survey unexplored areas of the seafloor. According to NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer Operations Officer Lieutenant Aaron Colohan, “During the first ROV dive leg, Okeanos Explorer and OER observed numerous new animals and discovered amazing geological features.”
Some of the highlights from the first leg of the expedition included the discovery of a new black smoker chimney (a type of hydrothermal vent), the first confirmation of precious corals in the Marianas, and several newly documented organisms.
This expedition was also the first effort to discover and document deep-sea coral and sponge communities in the deep waters of the Mariana Island region. In addition, the ship mapped more than 76,000 square kilometers (28,958 square miles) of seafloor during transits between dive sites and in targeted areas to support management interests.
The purpose of the second leg was to map unknown areas within the monument, and collect high resolution ocean depth data in the northernmost reaches of the MTMNM and CNMI, where such data was sparse.
“Features that were discovered during this leg include new mud volcanoes, new ridges and the definition of the 6,000-meter (19,685-foot) depth contour along the western wall of the Mariana Trench,” said Meme Lobecker, expedition coordinator for the second leg. “Additionally, through our Explorers-in-Training program, we trained four students in deepwater mapping methods.”
On June 17, 2016 Okeanos Explorer and her crew set out on the third and final leg of the expedition from Guam. They conducted dives in and around the island unit and the northern portion of the trench unit of MTMNM.
“During our Marianas expedition we discovered new hydrothermal vents, dense communities of deep sea corals and sponges, several new records for the region and dozens of potential new species, new mud volcanos and a new type of volcano that has never before been seen in U.S. waters,” said Kasey Cantwell, expedition coordinator for the third leg.
The last ROV dive yielded another exciting discovery. Within seconds of reaching the seafloor the ROV located the port wing of a B-29 Superfortress bomber aircraft, one of many that were lost in the area during World War II. Upon finding the downed plane, “the control room went silent,” according to Colohan. Throughout the dive, as the vehicles surveyed the area and investigate other potential targets, several more areas of wreckage debris were found.
This expedition was an enlightening experience for all parties involved, from scientists to members of the public. Using the ship’s unique “telepresence” capabilities, Okeanos Explorer streams video to shore in real-time, allowing scientists from around the world as well as the general public to experience the excitement of exploration.
The live video feeds on OER’s website received a record-breaking 3.1 million views during the course of the expedition. Additionally, during docking periods in Guam and Saipan, nearly 400 individuals toured the vessel, including local officials, educators, members of media, educators and Naval Base Guam personnel.
“As the ship leaves the Marianas, she leaves behind a legacy of new data, exciting discoveries and millions of people who have had a chance to explore this truly unique and special region,” said Cantwell.
-Contributed by Brandon Baylor