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Ocean Exploration aboard the E/V Nautilus


You may be familiar with some videos taken aboard the Exploration Vessel (E/V) Nautilus that have made recent headlines

Tools for exploration: The E/V Nautilus (top) and the two ROVs, Hercules (bottom left, in water collecting a sample), and Argus (bottom right, getting lowered into water before a dive).

Tools of exploration: The E/V Nautilus (top) and the two ROVs, Hercules (bottom left) collecting samples during a dive and  Argus (bottom right) getting lowered into water before a dive. Image from Ocean Exploration Trust.

such as the mysterious purple orb, the googly-eyed stubby-squid, or last year’s encounter with a sperm whale.

The E/V Nautilus is one of two vessels dedicated solely to exploring the largest habitat on our planet- the deep sea. While the majority of Earth lies in the cold, dark water of the deep sea, we have explored less of this environment than we have the moon. Thankfully, the Corps of Exploration is helping to better understand the deep sea using tools like the 211 foot Nautilus ship, which is equipped with a multibeam sonar mapping system, and  two onboard remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), Hercules and Argus.

As an Ocean Science Intern, I was one of the 31 scientists on the ship (with an additional 17 crew members – to virtually tour the ship watch this video). For the 2016 expedition season, the Nautilus explored the region off Canada and

the Western coast of the US. I was aboard for a portion of time exploring the Southern California Margin and during the exploration of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.


The Mission:

While on board, it was obvious that The Ocean Expedition Trust and the Corps of Exploration embody a multidisciplinary approach to science. Meaning that in any given season there are multiple scientific objectives the team is trying to accomplish, which involve exploring geological features, examining the biology, and surveying archeological treasures – all in the same area. For the first half of my time aboard, we investigated the fault zones of the Southern California Margin- an extremely active tectonic zone off California’s southern coast. In the second half of my

The 2016 exploration schedule. To learn more about each location, visit http://nautiluslive.org/expedition/2016 .

The 2016 exploration schedule. To learn more about each location, visit http://nautiluslive.org/expedition/2016. Image from Ocean Exploration Trust.

voyage, we worked with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to explore the deep waters of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. This involved both biological exploration and also included a survey of three different shipwrecks in the area- the Dorthy Wintermote, the Ituna, and the USS Independence. To hear more about this portion of the cruise, watch this video  featuring the chief scientists of the expedition.

One of the most exciting features of exploration on the Nautilus is that you can join along from home! All of E/V Nautilus’ missions are simulcast so that viewers and scientists can watch expeditions in real time, around the clock, from anywhere. You can see what the vessel is up to right now at http://nautiluslive.org/ .

How the science happens:

The Nautilus crew runs the ship 24/7. Most of the surface of our planet has not been mapped, making seafloor mapping a very important piece of the Nautilus’ exploration. This is accomplished using a multibeam sonar mapping system and subbottom profiler. Scientists on board and on land are then able to look at the maps generated to pick out interesting features worth further exploring (this can include interesting geological features, archaeological sites, or potential areas of biological interest like methane seeps or hydrothermal vents). Once a site has been chosen, the team launches the two ROVs into the water to explore areas of the ocean that have oftentimes never been seen by human eyes before.

Both ROVs are connected to one another via a cable that connects back to the ship, allowing pilots to operate the unmanned vehicles from above the surface. The cable also streams high definition (HD) video back to the ship so that pilots and scientists can see exactly what is happening 100s of meters below the water (Hercules can travel to 4,000 m and Argus to 6,000 m). Hercules is the major workhorse of the ROVs, equipped with probes and sensors to monitor ocean parameters (such as temperature, salinity, and oxygen content), two manipulator arms, a suction hose (called the slurp gun), and several cameras. In addition, Hercules is outfitted with water sampling bottles, push cores for sampling sediment, and insulated bioboxes to help preserve biological materials collected during dives. Argus is  suspended above Hercules and also outfitted with a camera, allowing the team to view Hercules from above. In the water, Argus is much heavier, and dampens the wave action experienced on the ship to keep Hercules stable during the dive. To see learn more about the ROVs, you can watch this video.

Scientists sit in the control van, watching a dive as Hercules zooms in on a octopus (large right hand screen). The Argus view of Hercules allows scientists (large left hand screen) to keep an eye on the ROV during the dive. Photograph by Julye Newlin.

Scientists sit in the control van, watching a dive as Hercules zooms in on a octopus (large right hand screen). The Argus view (large left hand screen) allows the crew to keep an eye on the ROV Herules during the dive. Photograph by Julye Newlin.

Because the ROVs are unmanned robots, they can stay down indefinitely – ROV dives can last over 24 hrs. How does the crew keep up with that schedule? Scientists and ROV pilots sit 4 hour shifts (called “watches”). There are 3 rotating watches: a 12 – 4 (am and pm), a 4 – 8 (am and pm), and an 8 – 4 (am and pm), so that the crew works for 4 hours with 8 hours off. During ROV dives, the watch team sits in the control van – the ship-board mission control. The control van is just two shipping containers which have been pushed together and have multiple screens and computers allowing each team member to do their specific job.

It takes a small army to run the dives and every watch has a navigator (telling the ship where to go), a Hercules pilot (controlling the ROV Hercules), an Argus pilot (controlling the ROV Argus), a video engineer (responsible for operating the cameras on the ROVs), a science communication fellow (serving as a liaison between the crew and the viewers back home), a data logger (recording information about the dive and samples collected), and a watch leader (ensuring that the crew is working to best complete the dive objectives). Unfortunately, with the vast array of science being completed on any given dive, the Nautilus cannot possibly fit all of the necessary scientific experts on the ship at once. Instead, numerous scientists tune in from ashore and help remotely guide the dives through real time communication with the watch leader. After a dive, both ROVs are recovered on the boat and any collected samples are processed by the science team. Samples are held on the ship and sent to museum collections for further laboratory analysis.

The Perks of Exploration:

Even if only for a month, being a part of such incredible scientific exploration was an unforgettable opportunity. While it was incredible to learn from the many scientists aboard and to witness deep-sea exploration first hand, perhaps the most exciting part was being able to share our discoveries, in real time, with viewers back home – to engage with the public and get people excited about ocean exploration. The work being done onboard the E/V Nautilus is so unique and important. It was an honor to be a part of the team.

If you are interested in sailing with the Nautilus, there are opportunities for students, educators, and scientists. Visit the Ocean Exploration Trust’s website to learn more. To learn more about previous expeditions and the exploration team visit Nautiluslive.org.


Stay tuned for the 2017 season- Happy Exploring!


One Response to “Ocean Exploration aboard the E/V Nautilus”

  1. Hello, I just saw an article about a “strange” pool or jacuzzi it was called, containing higher amounts of salt and sulfur etc. I am wondering if this could be a result of the dispersing agent used during the deep water oil spill in the gulf a few years back. It’s just a thought. How you find some answers. Keep up the good work

    Posted by Real Marion | November 5, 2016, 10:59 am

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