Plumbing the Depths: Using a High-Tech Ship to Explore our Coastal Marine Sanctuary
Atomic-Age Shipwrecks, Rugged Submarine Geology and Beautiful Coral Gardens in our Backyard
by Mary Miller • August 20, 2016
The Exploration Vessel Nautilus once again docked at the Exploratorium in preparation for an expedition along the Pacific Coast. We enjoy seeing ships out the Observatory windows, but especially like it when we are involved in the work the ships are doing and can share that with our audiences. Last May, the NOAA ship Ron Brown laid over during its West Coast ocean acidification cruise, we got a chance to hear from the expedition scientists, included renowned OA expert Dick Feely, about how conditions along the coast from Baja to British Columbia are changing because of the increased carbon dioxide in the ocean. Dr. Feely was especially thoughtful in discussing how decisions the American public make about their fossil fuel use can affect the health of the oceans for generations to come.
For the Nautilus, yesterday was a big day as the ship prepared to depart to the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary (GFNMS), just off the coast of San Francisco. Scientists and technicians will explore ship wrecks, deep sea coral gardens and how the unique geology of the submerged coastline contributes to some of the richest ecosystems in the world. Scientists at the sanctuary call the waters around the Farallon Islands the best restaurant in the Pacific for whales, sea birds, and salmon that come here every spring and summer to feed.
What makes the Nautilus expedition so exciting is that it will be the first time that scientists have gotten an up close look at the deep benthic communities in our backyard. "Every time we've explored the deep sea," says Maria Brown, Superintendent of GFNMS, "we've discovered new coral species in our sanctuaries." She explained that deep sea corals are more like a forest or garden than the familiar tropical corals that form reefs from their shells. Nevertheless, these deep water coral forests provide habitat and nourishment for many other species, forming a community that wouldn't be there otherwise. Documenting and mapping these communities, up to 1500 meters in depth, will be one of the tasks of the Nautilus ROVs on this upcoming mission.
But first on the expedition plan will be exploring some of the shipwrecks in the sanctuary, a maritime heritage that is as much a part of San Francisco as our cable cars. But it's one that is hidden from view and explored only through vessels like Nautilus that can plumb the depths with sophisticated mapping and video telecommunications (you can follow along live through the nautiluslive.org website). We got to preview one of those shipwreck expeditions in a Conversations about Landscape program that featured Jim Delgado, Director of Maritime Heritage for NOAA's National Marine Sanctuaries. The USS Independence was a US Naval aircraft carrier in World War II that was later used as a target during the Bikini atom bomb tests after the war. The tests failed to sink the sturdy iron ship and she was towed back to San Francisco and used for testing and training personnel at Hunters Point Naval ship yard in measuring and responding to radiation. In 1951, the USS Independence was finally towed back out and sunk off Half Moon Bay where it remained to be rediscovered in a mapping expedition by NOAA's Okeanos Explorer. Jim went back to the site in 2014 with a Boeing autonomous submarine to map the ship and prepare for the detailed photographic and video survey that NOAA and Nautilus scientists and technicians will be doing the night of August 22.
We'll be checking in with them in a special program at the Exploratorium's Observatory on August 23 at 1:30 PM. You can come in person to the Observatory or tune in on the web to join the conversation. If you want to see the exploration live, Nautilus will be streaming the live ROV dives continuously over the next week. We'll be doing two more live shows at the Exploratorium and streamed on the web on Friday, August 26th and Saturday, August 27th both at 1:30. I'll be hosting the shows and would love to see folks join in!