Bare Earth Elements: Search the seafloor firsthand (and live!)

by Timothy Oleson
Thursday, September 25, 2014

If you’ve ever wanted to take a dive into the ocean depths and explore the seafloor below the waves, but just haven’t had the time (or financing) to build your own deep-sea submersible, here’s another solution. NOAA’s 68-meter Okeanos Explorer — the only federally funded ship dedicated to “solely to exploration” — is currently trolling the Atlantic Ocean on the three-week third leg of a mission dubbed “Our Deepwater Backyard: Exploring Atlantic Canyons and Seamounts 2014," and it’s offering to take guests along for part of the ride.

As the mission’s title suggests, scientists aboard the Explorer are taking a closer look at some little known submerged canyons and seamounts, or underwater mountains, which often make great habitats for diverse communities of sea life. Leg 3 is mostly focused on a line of seamounts known as the New England Seamount Chain, which consists of dozens of extinct underwater volcanoes stretching more than 1,000 kilometers off the U.S. East Coast.

By means of a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) named Deep Discoverer, the exploration team aboard the ship is probing many areas never before seen by humans. The ROV is equipped to take incredible still photographs, and, during certain portions of the trip it is also streaming live video footage, with the feed available online to the public. (Check out the live feed above, or here.) Not only is the view exceptionally clear, but the science team aboard the ship offers essentially a play-by-play narration of what they’re commanding the ROV to do and what they, and you, are seeing on screen. It’s a little mind-boggling, for me at least, to realize that while sitting at my desk, I can view a patch of the ocean floor hundreds of kilometers away and thousands of meters below the surface.

Even when you’re just staring at the calm bottom, with obvious no life in sight, it’s beautiful and mesmerizing. And then some eerie-looking slithery fish will happen into the shot to grab your attention, or the camera will pan past gorgeous brittle stars or sea urchins perched atop sand-covered xenophyophores — bizarre, single-celled organisms sometimes described as giant amoebas. You might also be treated to colorful corals, sea anemones, crabs and other crustaceans. When these fascinating finds come into view, the team often zooms in, giving viewers a close-up shot that (if you stretch your imagination and/or have a large enough monitor) makes you feel like you’re down there yourself looking through a dive mask. It’s incredible.

Today, the Okeanos team is looking at sediments and sea life at about 2,000 meters depth on the Retriever Seamount. And tune in Friday, Sept. 26**, about 9 a.m. Eastern time for more live footage as the ROV dives to never-before-seen Asterias Seamount. For more information about the mission, ship, crew, daily reports and data collected, and to see photos snapped by Deep Discoverer, head to NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer page.

Happy exploring!

**Update: Unfortunately, Friday’s dive and live stream have been canceled due to poor weather conditions at the surface. Hopefully, though, there will be more opportunites to follow the Okeanos team below the waves as this expedition lasts through Oct. 7. Stay tuned!

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