Scientists, students, and viewers on land explored Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary with Bob Ballard’s Exploration Vessel Nautilus.
We didn’t get much sun during our week at sea. Gray skies dominated, but it was of little concern to us. Our eyes weren’t fixed on the horizon, rather they were glued to the many television and computer screens found all over the Exploration Vessel (E/V) Nautilus. In particular, we sat in the control van — two cargo shipping containers joined atop the ship — in the dark for eight hours each day as we performed our jobs as members of Bob Ballard’s Corps of Exploration. In the control van, the pilots guided remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) up and down the steep rocky walls that lined deep underwater canyons. Thanks to technology, we were going where no human had ever gone before.
Just hours after leaving port, our first dive was underway. Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and California Academy of Sciences conferred with scientists on land about which specimens to collect while communications fellows fielded questions from folks on dry land.
We searched for deep sea coral and sponge communities, marine organisms, invertebrates and all manner of life — knowing that rocky substrate and canyon walls would be our best bet. This terrain offers organisms something to hold on to.
Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary is one of 13 national marine sanctuaries and two marine national monuments that are part of the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, overseen by NOAA. This sanctuary is unique in that it is entirely offshore — its closest port is the small fishing village of Bodega Bay. The National Marine Sanctuaries protects unique and special ocean and Great Lakes places.
The sanctuary has prohibitions on seafloor disturbance such as oil and gas exploration, drilling and discharge of dirty water into sanctuary waters. Sanctuary managers work to balance commercial uses and conservation with many stakeholders and agencies.
We left San Francisco on the morning of Aug. 6, uncertain of what we would see and excited to know that we would be able to share a live video stream from the sanctuary to the public on Aug. 12, which was Get into your Sanctuary Day across the National Marine Sanctuary system. All national marine sanctuaries offered events to encourage communities to recognize their local sanctuaries as destinations to enjoy and recreate in.
Cordell Bank is a wee bit difficult to “get into” — the area’s eastern boundary is 6 miles from the Marin and Sonoma coastlines. The sanctuary is 1,286 square miles with its main features being Cordell Bank, which is not conducive to recreational diving. It’s a tough place to “recreate” in. So, we looked forward to being in the sanctuary on Aug. 12 and sharing our exciting finds through the live telepresence feed via nautiluslive.org, but the high winds and 20 foot swells canceled our last dives.
The disappointment was tangible everywhere on the ship. It felt like a lost opportunity to see everything we could below the surface and to practice what were, for some of us, newfound skills such as moderating the conversations taking place during dives, prioritizing which samples to collect and operating the video cameras on board the ROVs. We were able to conduct six “ship to shore” interactions with audiences around the United States to share the highlights from the expedition, which redeemed the loss of diving a tiny bit.
But, then the sun appeared — nudging our collective disappointment aside. We lingered on the social deck, watching the seabirds watch our boat in the hopes that we were a fishing vessel. Exhausted ROV engineers reclined on the upper deck, basking in the warm rays. The ROV team never seemed to rest. When they weren’t piloting the ROVs, they were furiously at work maintaining and repairing Hercules and Argus – our remotely operated vehicles of exploration.
In the distant horizon, a whale exhaled forcefully, sending a small geyser of air and water above ocean surface. Then another appeared and another. Over three hours we scurried from one side of the ship to the other as hundreds of humpback whales surrounded us — cresting gracefully above the surface and disappearing again like dancers crossing a stage. It was breathtaking and awe-inspiring. Two blue whale sightings got even the most experienced marine wild-life spotters on board jumping up and down, shouting and pointing at the water where they appeared for an instant.
It was like they knew we had something to celebrate.
Thanks to ROV and telepresence technology, E/V Nautilus revealed unexplored regions to sanctuary managers and the public. Dani Lipski, lead scientist for the expedition and research coordinator for Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, and her team had no idea what we would find and they feared our week of underwater exploration would reveal nothing but muddy ocean floor, devoid of life. New insights into the region and populations inhabiting it will greatly help those responsible for managing the sanctuary do so more effectively.
In more than 92 hours of diving during our expedition, we collected 10 push core samples; 89 biological samples, divided up in to 233 samples for researchers all over the country; filled 22 Niskin bottles, providing 54 water samples for environmental DNA analysis and other research about changing ocean chemistry; expanded known ranges for marine organisms like ctenophores, fish and coral species; and, collected a sample of a corkscrew coral (for which there is no previous record in North America).
The expedition offered an “entirely new way to think about this area and an entirely new way to talk about this area,” said Lipski.
In other words, it was a huge success.
Jenny Woodman is a science writer and Writing Fellowship coordinator for IEEE Earthzine; she lives in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter @JennyWoodman