An Introduction to My Life Aquatic

Earthzine science writer joins Robert Ballard’s Corps of Exploration on board the E/V Nautilus in August.

The E/V Nautilus is a 64-meter (211 foot) research vessel currently in port, preparing to explore the Eastern Pacific Ocean. Image Credit: Ocean Exploration Trust

I am an explorer.

I’m lucky enough to be joining the ranks of oceanographer Robert Ballard’s Corps of Exploration as a science communication fellow for the Ocean Exploration Trust (OET). The prospect of spending time on board a ship this summer communicating about ocean exploration and scientific research fills me with child-like excitement.

Founded by Ballard in 2008, OET is an organization dedicated to ocean exploration. The work takes place on board the Exploration Vessel (E/V) Nautilus, a 64-meter former East German “fishing vessel” outfitted with a wide range of equipment for scientific research, imaging, and data processing. Telepresence technology makes it possible for school kids, curious humans, and scientists from all over the world to join the adventure, in real-time, from dry land.

While it is hard to imagine that there is much left on this Earth to explore, the truth is that we have better maps of the moon and Mars than of our very own planet. Seventy percent of the Earth’s surface is under water, but we’ve mapped less than 13 percent of the sea floor. We have no idea what awaits us in the vast depths of the ocean, and we’re only just beginning to understand the ways human activity is impacting this precious resource, which is vital to our survival.

There are seamounts rising hundreds of feet above the ocean floor. These underwater volcanoes — some active and some extinct — are diverse hotspots, which host abundant ecosystems, supporting life both above and below the surface of the ocean.

There are deep-sea corals acting as forests do on land. Scott France, professor of Biology at the University of Louisiana, writes, “Like spiders in trees that spin a web in the branches to catch flying prey, there are many animals that climb the branches of corals to capture food that is drifting by in the water column.”

And, there are hydrothermal vents where many organisms may, thanks to a process called chemosynthesis, hold secrets to understanding and sustaining life on distant planets.

A map highlighting the 2017 Nautilus expedition. Image Credit: Ocean Exploration Trust

The 2017 expedition will begin in May and end in early November; E/V Nautilus will travel from Baja to Canada and back, exploring the unique geologic features and biology of the Eastern Pacific Ocean. Armed with a multibeam sonar system for mapping, the team can identify areas for deeper exploration with the Nautilus’s two remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) – Hercules and Argus. The ROVs work in tandem, diving down as far as 4,000 meters to collect samples and images, which are live streamed 24 hours a day whenever Hercules and Argus are deployed.

In early August, I’ll join the Corps on board the Nautilus and participate in the exploration of Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, located about 40 miles off the California coast near San Francisco.  This sanctuary, established in 1989 and expanded in 2015, is one of 14 protected areas managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Most of the area is unmapped leaving little knowledge about large swaths of the region.

Thanks to natural phenomena and the season, the region is nutrient rich, providing for the corals, fish, marine mammals, and birds. Scientists have observed tagged animals from all over the world coming to feed around Cordell Bank in the summer months.

2017 Science Communications Fellows Tommy Riparetti and Jenny Woodman practice for future live broadcasts at the Inner Space Center at University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography. Image Credit: Alex DeCiccio/OET

A team of scientists, educators, ROV pilots, and engineers will spend the two-week leg mapping and exploring new regions with ROVs. All of this work will be live-streamed 24 hours a day. I’ll be one of three science communication fellows serving on rotating eight-hour watches each day. We will be delivering ship-to-shore presentations to schools, museums and other venues interested in learning more about the exploration happening on board the ship.

The 2017 E/V Nautilus Expedition is sponsored by the NOAA Office of Exploration and Research, the Office of Naval Research, the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, Ocean Networks Canada, NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, the University of Rhode Island, CITGO, and additional private donors.

For more information about ship-to-shore events, contact OET’s education team, and follow Nautilus Live on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And, stay tuned for more stories about my adventures published in IEEE Earthzine.

Jenny Woodman is a science writer and Writing Fellowship coordinator for IEEE Earthzine. Follow her on Twitter @JennyWoodman.

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