Scientists to Study, Stream Video of Deep Sea Research

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On Friday morning, the NOAA research vessel Okeanos Explorer will depart Honolulu for the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument on an unprecedented deep sea expedition.

A team of scientists will seek out teeming communities of diverse marine life, and conduct the first survey to map the details of the sea floor in the protected ocean region. They’ll be using a cutting-edge Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) to explore the undersea world, and the images and video they capture in the remote corner of the globe will be streamed live on the web for researchers and the public alike.

“The Okeanos Explorer is one of the few vessels in the NOAA fleet that is dedicated to telepresence… so everyone can, in real time, see exactly the same things we are seeing on the ship,” says Dr. Daniel Wagner, a research specialist for Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. “The ROV has nine high-definition cameras, and the footage is gorgeous… you can see details as clear as people in a [manned] submersible would be seeing with their own eyes.”

“There’s not much difference between what you can see on the ship, at a research control center, or at home,” adds science lead Dr. Christopher Kelly.

Kelley and Wagner were the opening guests on tonight’s episode of Bytemarks Cafe on Hawaii Public Radio. Kelley, former program biologist for the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory, will oversee the scientific work on the three-year Pacific project. Wagner earned his Ph.D. in biological oceanography from the University of Hawaii at Manoa and has studied deep-sea coral reefs for over a decade.

“We’re going to take the ROV, which can dive to 6,000 meters, and we’re going to dive on twenty locations that we’ve picked out with the help of other scientists around the country,” Kelley explains. “We’re trying to look for very deep, very high density communities of deep sea corals and other animals.”

“These are extremely interesting communities — corals and sponges are ecosystem engineers,” Wagner adds. “They have a whole suite of other animals associated with them… we’re targeting these areas that are very high in biodiversity and very interesting biologically.”

Kelley compared the Okeanos Explorer’s ROV with the deep diving manned submersibles he worked with at HURL.

“The submersibles that HURL had a 2,000-meter depth rating… this particular vehicle is not a manned vehicle [and] can reach 6,000 meters in depth, three times the depth of the HURL submersibles,” he said. “Right now, up at the Monument, we have some dives from HURL activities down to 2,000 meters but that’s it, there’s nothing known about what’s below 2,000 meters.”

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In addition to conducting surveys of marine life, the mission will also continue work to map the seafloor in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

“We have a couple of sites that we haven’t mapped yet completely but where we want to do a dove, so we’re going to be mapping the area,” Wagner said. “We also had a first cruise this past week to Johnson Atoll, we didn’t do any dives, we just mapped the area, with the intent of picking sites where, a month from now, we can deploy ROVs.”

And as with much of NOAA’s recent research programs, climate change is another driving force behind this expedition to Papahānaumokuākea.

“The area contains some of the most pristine ecosystems on the planet,” Wagner explains. “People don’t live there, there are no fisheries, there’s very little pollution, so by looking at these places we can get an idea of what an ecosystems should like in the absence of humans.”

“When people go out to the beach and look at the reefs off Waikiki they think that those are normal, but they’re not, they’ve been heavily degraded by humans,” he adds. “By looking at these pristine ecosystems, we can quantify some of the impacts in more populated areas.”

Although the live-streamed high-definition video is a marquee offering of the mission, Kelley noted that the scientific data that’s collected will also be published quickly.

“The Office of Ocean Exploration and Research gets their data out probably faster than any other research organization out there — that is a very high priority for them,” he said. “It’s an absolute mission for this project and this office to get this data out and as widely distributed as possible to anyone who’d like it.”

Indeed, the Okeanos Atlas is updated every fifteen minutes.

The vessel departs from Honolulu Harbor at 6 a.m. on Friday, July 31, but the livestream may be available even before then, pointed at the deck of the ship as final preparations get underway. To watch, or to learn more about the ship and its mission, visit oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/okeanos. You can also check out the YouTube channel for featured excerpts and other video updates.

You can listen to tonight’s complete interview here:

 

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Photos courtesy Burt Lum.

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