NORFOLK, Va., - What's out of sight for many people isn't out of mind for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.
The unknown is what has NOAA's Ocean Exploration team plunging into new depths.
"It is the most unexplored habitat on Earth, and we know so little about it," said Kasey Cantwell, the expedition coordinator for NOAA Ocean Exploration. "That's what our office and our partners are charged with - that mission of producing the unknown in the deep sea."
Having had the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer docked for more than a year due to the pandemic, Explorers just finished a two-week expedition in the Atlantic Ocean between Norfolk, Virginia, and Newport, Rhode Island, testing dual-body remotely operated vehicles. Also called ROVs, the vehicles let NOAA explore the ocean without actually being in the ocean.
The expedition included engineering test dives in water depths up to approximately 5,000 meters (3.1 miles).
"We upgraded the vehicles' hydraulic systems, which actuates the robotic arms that you'll see on the live footage taking the samples," said Karl McLetchie, an ocean/mechanical engineer with the Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration. "Out here there's not much room for error."
Engineers also installed an upgraded high-definition camera system, an extreme-low-light camera to take video in the dark, a dimmable LED lighting system and a BlueView scanning sonar to detect objects beyond the reach of the ROV’s lights.
Having fully functional systems sets researchers and engineers up for successful dives, both during the day and at night.
"The dives went well. We got video and samples every dive, but there was always one or two things. When we recover them at the end of the day we have to spend a few hours tweaking and fixing and getting ready. Every mistake is a new lesson and then you add that to what not to do," McLetchie said.
According to NOAA, "Following departure from Norfolk, Virginia, we will conduct the initial engineering dives off the coast of North Carolina, moving progressively farther offshore and to deeper depths. We’ve identified some interesting sites for our tests and training, which is a nice bonus. Among them is Caryn Seamount. We plan to attempt the first dives ever on this seamount, which lies 440 miles off the coast of Virginia. Then, we will transit to the mid-Atlantic canyons to explore some unexplored canyons and a maritime heritage site proposed by the U.S. Navy. The expedition will end in the homeport of Okeanos Explorer, Newport, Rhode Island."
The federally-funded organization prioritizes community engagement and community-driven exploration. Videos of dives and missions are live-streamed 24/7 and anyone can track the team's progress.
"We work very hard to make that accessible in an easy fashion on the internet so people can download this data," said Matt Dornback, an expedition coordinator with NOAA Ocean Exploration.
Cantwell said the data collected benefits everyone from scientists to local Hampton Roads fishermen.
"So much of that is reliant upon the ocean and in areas like Norfolk where the deep sea is pretty close - just offshore it's really important to understand these ecosystems and understand the deepwater environment," Cantwell said.
The team leaves for their next exploration at the beginning of July.