On May 10, 2019, the Ocean Exploration Trust embarked on a six-month expedition aboard Exploration Vessel Nautilus. In its fifth year exploring the eastern Pacific Ocean, Nautilus will visit sites along the West Coast of the United States, and for the first time, within the central Pacific including American Samoa and U.S. Territorial Islands.
Continuing the Nautilus Exploration Program’s mission to explore the oceans and seek out the unknown in regions the scientific community has deemed a high priority for exploration, scientists on board Nautilus and on shore participating via telepresence will conduct research across the Pacific Ocean ranging from deep-sea coral habitats in national marine sanctuaries, hydrothermal vents, an extensive octopus aggregation, and an underwater archaeology site.
Participate in live ocean exploration via www.nautiluslive.org.
Launching the 2019 Nautilus Expedition season is a continuation of a multi-year collaborative expedition to collect high-resolution mapping data and characterize submerged shorelines in the California Borderland region, near OET’s home port at AltaSea at the Port of Los Angeles. The focus of this year’s exploration will be Osborn Bank and builds on an effort by Nautilus over the last four years to understand sea level history and locate, map, and document submerged paleo-shorelines in the Channel Islands region.
Nautilus then moves north along California for the second year collaborating with the SUBSEA (Systematic Underwater Biogeochemical Science and Exploration Analog) Research Program, a partnership between NASA, NOAA, OET, University of Rhode Island’s Inner Space Center, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and various academic research centers. Bringing together both ocean and space exploration teams aboard E/V Nautilus, SUBSEA blends ocean exploration with ocean worlds research to address knowledge gaps related to the exploration of our Solar System. The SUBSEA team will conduct the second of its two field programs at Gorda Ridge offshore of northern California and Oregon, building upon the work conducted during the first field program at Lō`ihi Seamount in 2018. This section of mid-ocean ridge is of interest to ocean researchers in that it hosts seafloor hydrothermal activity that departs from the convention of black smoker hydrothermal systems, instead emitting clear superheated fluids from the seafloor.
Heading far west past the Hawaiian Islands, Nautilus will then enter the central Pacific for the first time. The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (PRIMNM) is among the largest marine protected areas in the world, but remains poorly explored due in part to its spatial isolation. Nautilus exploration in this region will build upon multi-year efforts by NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer and the Campaign to Address Pacific monument Science, Technology, and Ocean NEeds (CAPSTONE) to provide baseline science data for conservation and management. The first Nautilus expedition in PRIMNM will focus on exploring deep-water features near Kingman Reef, Palmyra Atoll, and Jarvis Island, among the least explored U.S. holdings in the Pacific Ocean. Deep-sea corals and sponges are some of the most abundant large organisms observed on the deep seafloor, yet many questions remain about their distribution and diversity on seamounts, islands, and atolls in the central Pacific. Given the remoteness of these territories, and lack of previous exploration, it is expected that the chances of encountering new species is high.
While in this region, Nautilus will partner with the Air Sea Heritage Foundation for a deep water archaeological survey. This expedition’s goals are to locate, identify, and document the wreckage of Samoan Clipper (NC16734), a Pan American Airways Sikorsky S-42B flying boat that crashed off the northwest coast of Tutuila Island, American Samoa in January 1938. Attempting to establish the first regular air mail service between the United States and New Zealand, engine trouble had forced the plane to turn back toward Pago Pago when all radio contact with the trailblazing fliers was lost. Hopes for their rescue were soon dashed when searchers found an oil slick and charred debris floating on the ocean surface mere minutes from safety. At that time, water depths in excess of 3 kilometers (more than 2 miles) kept the wreck and all its secrets far out of reach. But now, equipped with ROV technology undreamt of 81 years ago, the explorers on board Nautilus will try to write the final chapter of Samoan Clipper’s tragic story. If successful, the resulting survey will characterize an archaeological site with major significance to aviation history, determine the final resting place of pioneering Captain Edwin C. Musick and his 6-man crew, plus investigate the wreckage for conclusive evidence as to what lead to their fate.
While near American Samoa, Nautilus will then collect baseline information on deep-sea and mesophotic habitat, with a special focus on the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa (NMSAS). American Samoa, the southernmost U.S Territory in the South Pacific, is an oceanic archipelago with a small insular shelf, with the steep slope of the seafloor quickly dropping into mesophotic and deep sea depths. Mesophotic coral ecosystems occur in low light ocean zones from 30m to over 150m and are one of the most understudied components of the coral reef ecosystem. Conducting a biological census of deep-sea and mesophotic communities, seafloor mapping, and targeted sampling for potential new species and further environmental analysis will further expand scientific knowledge of American Samoa and NMSAS. Nautilus will also explore the volcanically active crater of Vailulu’u seamount, previously explored by the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer, to document how active volcanism may affect biological communities over time.
Nautilus will then continue to explore another nearby region of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, including Howland and Baker Islands and nearby seamounts, as well as seamounts and ridges near Johnston Atoll. Building upon previous exploration by NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer and the CAPSTONE campaign, collecting baseline information about the deep-sea ecosystems in this region will support science and management decisions in and around these U.S. marine protected areas. Deep waters in the remote central Pacific remain some of the most poorly studied environments on Earth, and this expedition will conduct seafloor mapping and acquire video, biological, chemical, and geological samples in order to better understand marine habitats, biogeographic patterns, seafloor mineral distribution, and geologic history. Nautilus will also gather information that will be used to study coral-associated communities--knowledge critical to evaluating the impact of the Marine Protected Areas on deepwater coral ecosystems over time.
Moving back to the West Coast of the U.S., Nautilus will visit two distinct national marine sanctuaries off the northern coast of California during one joint expedition. The region of Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary comprises one of the world’s most productive and biologically rich ocean areas and protects over 700 species of fish and invertebrates. NOAA’s national marine sanctuaries are responsible for protecting the biological and cultural resources within their boundaries, and these expeditions will gather more data to inform conservation and management, with a particular focus on deep-sea sponge and coral communities.
Wrapping up the 2019 Nautilus expedition season, E/V Nautilus will return to revisit and further characterize the “octopus garden,” an unexplored, deep-water region of basaltic rocky reef southeast of Davidson Seamount, within the borders of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS). One of the largest seamounts in U.S. waters, Davidson Seamount is an inactive volcano off the coast of central California, and due to important habitats on this underwater mountain, is considered to be an area of special national significance. In October 2018, Nautilus and MBNMS discovered extensive aggregations of over 1,000 brooding female octopuses (Muusoctopus robustus).This area was not fully explored and will be the first objective of this cruise.
While en route to and from the Central Pacific and Hawaiian Islands, Nautilus will conduct echosounder mapping to fill in gaps in seafloor mapping coverage. Systematic mapping of the seafloor by echosounder commenced nearly a century ago, however, more than 80% of the world’s seafloor is still not mapped. In addition to aiding in planning future exploration with ROVs, seafloor mapping data will also directly contribute to international mapping efforts including the Nippon Foundation-GEBCO Seabed 2030 Project. Mapping targets include a section in the Clarion Clipperton Fracture Zone that is adjacent to areas designated for seabed mining of polymetallic nodules under the International Seabed Authority.
While Nautilus is in the deep waters of the Clarion Clipperton Fracture Zone, OET will also conduct the first deep water test of a new mobile ROV system. In collaboration with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and NOAA Office of Exploration & Research, OET has designed and built a sister ROV system with ROVs Little Hercules, Argus 2, and support equipment.