Author: Ellie Bors
In the summer of 2010 I was asked to participate in a research cruise to explore Indonesia’s deep sea. The ship would launch daily ROV (remotely operated vehicle) dives with the aim of locating hydrothermally active vent fields and looking for cold water coral habitat. It was the summer before I started graduate school in the Joint Program at MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and I had decided to spend it at home in Seattle with my family since it was probably the last time I would have that luxury. Still, I eagerly agreed to join because apparently I wouldn’t be requires to leave Seattle. Instead, I would participate via telepresence.
The idea behind telepresence research cruises is simple: instead of going to sea, scientists gather on land to watch real-time high definition video streaming (from the ROV), talk to the ship with voice communication through an RTS unit, and log observations on the cruise’s ichat log. Certain sites on land are set up as Exploration Command Centers (ECCs). The ship only carries a few scientists who communicate with their colleagues at these ECCs to discuss dive planning and new discoveries. Doing things this way not only reduces the cost of going to sea, it also means that more people can be involved in the research as it takes place. The ship can contact specialists around the world to ask questions and get input while the cruise is happening. And the absolute best part in my opinion is that the dives are streamed in real time online for the public (that’s you!). School children, curious businessmen, and retired librarians can all witness hydrothermal venting beneath 2000 meters of Indonesian water, watch an anemone eat a hatchetfish in the Gulf of Mexico, or observe a squid glide effortless above the seafloor near the Galapagos. All it takes is the click of a button to watch this streamed footage.
For the Indonesia cruise, the ship at sea was the NOAA vessel, Okeanos Explorer. I was lucky in that there was an ECC at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL), just a short distance from my home. I would head over and join scientists from PMEL as well as a few colleagues from the University of Victoria up in BC. We ordered pizza at night and watched the seafloor. It was actually really fun. Dives would usually end around 11, just early enough for me to head out and meet up with friends for a couple of hours before heading home. The best thing was that I was sleeping in my own bed every night, and I never got sea sick! You can check out all the info about the Indonesia cruise here, including a log post that I wrote about the experience.
The following year, the ship traveled to the Galapagos Rift and even though I was in New Zealand at the time (you’ll probably hear more about that in future posts), I could occasionally watch the dives online from the comfort of my home. (Dives usually take place during the day wherever the ship is, which can be unfortunate if you’re in a very different time zone. The Galapagos dives started around 2 am NZ time, so I would sometimes wake late at night to watch a few hours at a time).
In April of this year, we explored the Gulf of Mexico from the big screen in our lab. Again, this was an Okeanos Explorer cruise and our lab advisor, Dr. Tim Shank, was the chief scientist on board with the whole lab standing watch back in Woods Hole. For some photos from that, you can check out a piece that appeared in WHOI’s online magazine, the Oceanus. While there are many upsides of participating from shore, it is still exhausting and can be quite challenging because even though you’re standing watch every day and running essentially a ship schedule, you’re also expected to do everything you would normally be doing. Which for me last term was a lot of homework!
This summer I finally get to see what it’s like to be on the other end of the line! And I get to do it in the Mediterranean. I’ll be on board the E/V Nautilus, exploring mud volcanoes and seamounts south of Turkey. The Nautilus team has been based in the Black Sea and Mediterranean region for the last two years and we’ll be revisiting some sites from previous cruises as well as exploring some new places. Going to sea is one of the perks of being an ocean scientist. Although it is demanding and exhausting, it’s also a lot of fun. And while telepresence allows you the freedom to participate in a cruise from the comfort of your own home, there’s nothing that can quite replace the feeling of being at sea. You can follow along later in July though the Nautilus website!