Things Old and New, On E/V NAUTILUS

By MarEx 2011-09-01 13:56:06

On an morning in late August, on the Aegean Sea near the Turkish port of Bodrum, a number of us joined the crew of the Exploration Vessel NAUTILUS in search of ancient shipwrecks. The artifacts that survive, and therefore mark the wrecks, are usually amphorae, the ceramic cargo containers used over millennia.  The technology used to explore the ocean floor for ancient wrecks is also effective in the search for natural resources on the ocean floor.   E/V NAUTILUS is one of the boldest and most advanced working ships in existence. The crew are a mix of youthful geologists, biologists and archaeologists; you can follow their activities on www.nautiluslive.org.We're advancing on wrecks off the Datcha peninsula, which projects into the southern Aegean. It is an ancient and modern resting place of sunken ships, and provides a cross-section of merchant shipping since the earliest stirrings of civilized man. Oceanic depths, such as the Aegean, are largely unexplored beyond shallows accessible to regional SCUBA divers.  The regions off the Bodrum and Datcha Peninsulas have long been centers of human activity, from the earliest times.  They are there for an understanding of ancient and modern submarine landscapes. Over the past four years, the NAUTILUS has been engaged in documenting areas of coastal deepwater (50-600 meters) with sophisticated acoustic and visual imaging systems.
Carleen Lyden-Kluss and I, as trustees of the Sea Research Foundation, were excited to be able to participate in NAUTILUS’ work for about a week. 

  • The technology deployed from NAUTILUS, including the remotely operated vehicles Hercules and Argus, comprise systems specifically designed for deepwater exploration.
  • Hercules and Argus are state-of-the-art deep-sea robotic vehicle systems capable of exploring depths up to 4000 meters.
  • Each remotely operated vehicle (ROV) has its own suite of cameras and sensors that receive electrical power from the surface through a fiber-optic cable, which also transmits data and video.
  • Engineers and scientists command the vehicles from a control room aboard NAUTILUS, with some dives lasting more than three days.

Argus was first launched in 2000 and was soon followed by Hercules in 2003.  The systems are versatile, capable of supporting a wide range of oceanographic instrumentation and sampling equipment.  They have surveyed ancient shipwrecks, discovered hydrothermal vents, and recovered lost equipment in oceans and seas around the world. Several smaller remote systems complement Hercules and Argus for various exploration objectives.
The Institute for Exploration, a division of  Sea Research Foundation and based in Connecticut, is led by Dr. Robert D. Ballard, who was responsible for locating and exploring the wreck of RMS TITANIC more than twenty years ago.  One of its major functions is the education of young people in a broad range of outreach programs, supported by www.nautiluslive.org, making it possible for everyone to follow the deepsea exploration efforts of NAUTILUS, as though all of us, wherever we are located, are aboard the ship, interactively sitting with the members of the command/control center. After the discovery of the wreck of TITANIC, Dr. Ballard, in 1989, founded the JASON Project, now also part of Sea Research Foundation.  The purpose of JASON is to make use of the growing interest in ocean exploration on the part of school children across the United States, and, soon, around the world.  Since its inception, the JASON Project, in partnership with the National Geographic Society, has motivated millions of young students with the excitement of scientific exploration and discovery. Using the cutting-edge research and researchers within the private sector and at federal research laboratories – JASON pursues its mission systematically through an inquiry-based curriculum and a global online community.

The program has won acclaim for its innovative use of telepresence technology to create a “being there” experience through satellite broadcasts from remote expeditions – and even more so for taking students and their teachers into the field to experience oceanographic research first-hand. This immersive field experience is accompanied by a variety of curriculum units aligned to national science standards, promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) skills, sorely needed in today's school environments.

The JASON project is founded on the principle that scientists can and should be presented as great positive role models for children.

Students can be inspired with the desire to learn, and many will go on to make science and related disciplines part of their career or education plans.

The work of Dr. Ballard and his team has, as you might realize, practical applications.  NAUTILUS is equipped to find chimney vents, "black smokers", and "white smokers", which are hydrothermal vents rich in strategically important minerals and sulfides. They occur wherever there is enough heat and porosity to drive hydrothermal convection, such as in certain parts of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  Active submarine volcanoes in the centers of tectonic plates also host hydrothermal vents. Loihi, a mid-plate hot-spot volcano that will eventually emerge as a new Hawaiian island, is one of the best-studied seamount/hydrothermal examples. Other hydrothermally active seamounts that have been explored are Pito Seamount near the East Pacific Rise at 22? S, and Peep's Seamount in the Bering Sea. The vast economic potential for subsurface/seabed mineral and biological exploitation (not a politic turn of phrase, but there you are) has been increasingly clear since the discovery of deep-sea hydrothermal vents in 1977. A wonderful coincidence: the breakthrough was made by the research vessel KNORR, 9000 feet above the Galapagos Rift in the eastern Pacific, 200 miles north of the Galapagos Islands, where Dr. Darwin landed in September, 1835 and changed our understanding of life on Earth.

We are, in late August of 2011, aboard NAUTILUS in part to learn where technology has gone since 1977.Economically and politically, the oceans are often called our "last frontier". There are of course a number of "last frontiers".  The assault on this one has many intriguing dimensions.

To read more about Clay Maitland and to visit his blog, click here.

MarEx does not necessarily endorse any opinions herein.