When I step onto the Okeanos, a former Navy surveillance ship nestled behind the warehouses of Manhattan’s Pier 36, a man with a blue-checkered shirt and salt-and-pepper goatee the younger engineers call “Dad” welcomes me aboard. As the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Deep Submergence Program, Dave Lovalvo, 59, has spent much of the past 35 years of his life on deep sea expeditions after the Smithsonian first asked him “to look for Atlantis” on his one-man submarine in the ’70s. That expedition was canceled, but launched Lovalvo into decades of increasingly complex projects, the most recent of which has been the Okeanos—the U.S. government’s only ship solely dedicated to exploring the ocean’s vast unknowns and beaming them to the public.
“There are many ships that do research, but we’re the only ship that does exploration. We’re mandated to explore,” Lovalvo tells me on the bridge, in front of a span of radar, sonar, GPS, and dynamic movement monitors. “It’s almost like Lewis and Clark. It’s a huge privilege to be able to do this, because no one else can.”
The Okeanos is about to set out on a three-week journey into the North Atlantic, where it’ll use robots to scale canyons and sea mounts thousands of feet below the ocean surface. Some 95% of this architecture remains unexplored in the mute darkness of the deep—“and I can guarantee you that the other 5% that everybody says has been explored has been explored to a very small amount,” Lovalvo adds. On the Okeanos’s last voyage, which lasted 18 days, engineers discovered a new seamount, and mapped another the size of Washington state’s Mount Rainier. They will also be live-streaming high quality footage of the weird, vividly colored wildlife they find, which anyone will be able to watch on an iPhone. (Watch this space for updates.)
That footage is often what makes up pristine National Geographic documentaries—close-ups of tiny, purple octopi and ancient coral formations, undulating eels and solid methane crusted over breaks in deep sediment called “cold seeps.” In the cool, dark, control room, at least a dozen monitors keep track of this activity, in addition to topographical mapping. The cameras are hedged in a 3,000 pound sled, as well as a brand-new remotely operated vehicle (ROV) connected by a cable leash—an underwater drone robot that Lovalvo’s team of engineers built specifically for these missions, and to withstand 10,000 pounds of pressure per square inch at 20,000 feet deep.
“That’s like having two Suburbans on your big toe,” Webb Pinner, an engineer and the telepresence team lead sipping coffee behind the ROV, explains.
Unlike typical research expeditions, the Okeanos sets out without hypotheses. By consensus, the NOAA figures out which areas have yet to be mapped or probed, and the Okeanos, with the help of underwater robots with hydraulic-powered, sensory arms, reports back video footage and data by a giant, volleyball-shaped satellite dome mounted on its deck. In the last seven years that the Okeanos has been operating as an exploration ship (before that, the Navy called her the Capable), she’s traveled from Indonesia to the Galapagos, discovering new types of coral, topography, and once, a 200-year-old shipwreck. The data the team will collect on this trip could inform anything from commercial fishing operations to potential climate research—the location and number of the methane-leaking cold seeps, for example (which can convert to CO2 when in contact with oxygen), could better inform global greenhouse gas measures or potential sources of renewable energy.
But in addition to custom-building robots and discovering new life-forms, one of the crew’s biggest perks is being able to share their missions directly in the form of the livestream. Not only can anyone watch, but during the last expedition, the Okeanos was able to connect more fully with a summer camp of middle school kids building their own ROVs out of PVC pipe at the University of New Hampshire.
“They had three screens up on the wall—one from the camera sled and ROV, and one with a camera looking at the pilots. So the kids could look at the pilot, and he would say, ‘and now I’m going to turn left,’ and they’d see him turn left,” Pinner said.
“To inspire not only the next generation of scientists, but the next generation of exploration engineers—that was probably my proudest moment,” Pinner gushed. “That’s why we’re out here.”