On April 9, 2015, E/V Nautilus and its Corps of Exploration embarked on an ambitious expedition season, exploring sites ranging from the Gulf of Mexico to British Columbia through late September 2015. Over six weeks of the six-month expedition was be dedicated to exploration and mapping of the Galapagos region, the site of the first hydrothermal vent discovery in 1977.
The 2015 expedition marked the transition of the vessel and operations of the Ocean Exploration Trust (OET) to the west coast of the United States and the Pacific Ocean, concluding over two years of research in the Gulf and Caribbean regions.
Continuing the Corps’ mission to seek out the unknown ocean regions the scientific community has deemed a high priority for exploration, more than 200 explorers and scientists from institutions including Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Texas A&M University joined the team aboard to conduct research ranging from the ongoing impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to mapping the Galapagos Rift and investigating rarely explored regions of the California coast and Eastern Pacific Ocean.
Nautilus spent the first two months in the Gulf of Mexico examining the biological impact of the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill as well as studying the fundamental behavior of hydrocarbon seeps as they disperse in the water column to better predict the impact of any future oil spills. Exploration in the region continued with the examination of brine pools and cold methane seeps. Mussels living on these “underwater lakes” thrive in very low oxygen environments, existing on a symbiotic relationship with chemosynthetic bacteria and scientists are continuing to learn about how they are able to live in these inhospitable environments.
During the first week of the expedition, the team had a rare encounter with a sperm whale at 598 meters (1,962 feet). The whale investigated our ROV Hercules for approximately 15 minutes in video that captured the attention of audiences worldwide. Experts agreed it was likely a young, male sperm whale approximately 35-40 feet in length.
The ship transited through the Panama Canal during the 100th anniversary year of the canal and begin seafloor mapping and exploration of various vent sites in the Galapagos Rift near the Galapagos Islands. This marked a historic return for Dr. Ballard who was part of the scientific team that discovered the first “black smoker” vents in the region in 1977. The discovery of hydrothermal vents and chemosynthetic organisms in the volcanic ridges in the rift was a revolutionary discovery in science that changed our understanding of life processes.
Following the work in Galapagos, the team mapped seamounts off Mexico and then conducted research in the relatively unexplored region of the California Borderlands near San Diego and Santa Monica. Targets of exploration included examining the geologic threat posed by important faults that lie closer to important centers of urban population than the San Andreas Fault and an “air-ship wreck” of the rigid airship USS Macon and its attached biplanes that sank in the 1930s.
The E/V Nautilus ended the season with a transit up the west coast of the United States to Ocean Network Canada's North East Pacific Time-series Underwater Networked Experiments (NEPTUNE) under sea observatory located off the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. The observatory’s infrastructure, an 812 km loop of fiber optic cable connected to instruments, enables scientists to study phenomena through continuous long-term, high temporal resolution observations not afforded by traditional ship-based ocean exploration.
The 2015 field season locations were recommended by participants of the Workshop for Telepresence-Enabled Exploration of the Eastern Pacific Ocean held in December 2014 by OET and NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration.