Visions of sugar plums they were not, but you could forgive Jamie Austin for feeling as if he were dreaming.
On his screen he saw what looked like big glass bowls sparkling in the headlamps of the remotely operated vehicle (ROV). They were actually basket sponges made of silica. At another site, he saw rows of partially buried clay jars, some with eel heads peering out into the unnatural light. The jars, called amphorae, were the only visible remains of an ancient Roman ship wreck. Elsewhere, floating in the water just above the seafloor were ghostly translucent tubes four meters long. Thanks to a live video feed and chat stream, an expert on jellyfish at the University of Southern California identified them as siphonophores, strange cousins to jellyfish whose bodies are like little colonies made up of multiple, specialized organisms.
“You’re seeing part of the seafloor no human eye has ever seen before,” said Austin, co-chief scientist for an innovative exploration and outreach project called Nautilus Live. “It’s like being the first person to go to the moon or Mars.”
This year’s expedition, which runs from July through November, is focused on the Black, Aegean and Mediterranean seas. Team members use ROVs with high definition video cameras to explore the seafloor up close. For Austin, who typically studies the geology of the seafloor and what lies beneath it using seismic instruments producing grainy, colorless graphs, it’s a very different experience.
“You feel like you can reach right out of the screen and touch things,” said Austin, who is also the senior research scientist at The University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Geophysics.
There’s usually one ROV crawling along near the seafloor, like an entomologist studying ants, while a second ROV hovers like a blimp high over a football game, providing context and scale.
Amid the wonders, Austin also saw a lot of trash — soda cans, wire rope, bottles, containers of all shapes and sizes, plastic wrap and fishing gear. On their last dive of the 10-day leg in the Western Mediterranean this past September and October, one of the ROVs actually got ensnared in long line fishing gear sporting fishhooks every 20 or 30 feet. It took them hours to hack away all the clear polypropylene line.
“That’s one of our biggest fears working in the Mediterranean,” said Austin. “You can see it sitting on the seafloor, but it’s almost impossible to see when it’s floating in the water.”
Austin pointed out that trash in the oceans isn’t a new phenomenon. Elegantly earthy amphorae — used by the ancient Romans to transport olive oil, wine and grains — were typically thrown overboard when they were emptied. Archaeologists find them littered along ancient shipping routes.
“To the Romans it was trash,” he quipped. “To us, it’s archaeology.”
Nautilus Live is the brainchild of Robert Ballard, president of the Institute for Exploration at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut. Ballard and Austin were students together at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the 1970s. Even then, Austin was impressed by Ballard’s vision and determination.
“In 1974, he knew he was going to find the Titanic within 10 years,” said Austin. Ballard found the wreck of the R.M.S. Titanic in 1985, insuring instant and enduring fame. “He thinks five to 10 years ahead. He’s an amazing guy.”
Placing as much emphasis on education and outreach as on research, the voyages of the Exploration Vehicle (E/V) Nautilus are like no other on the seas today. Using a high bandwidth satellite connection, the team sends video, audio and data in real time to the Inner Space Center at the University of Rhode Island and on to the rest of the world. Hundreds of scientists and many more students, teachers and members of the public come aboard virtually and interact live with on-board scientists and engineers. Data are collected, discoveries — biological, geological and archaeological — are made, and scientific papers are written. But just as important is getting middle and high school students turned on to science and exploration by showing them real people doing real work.
“Ballard deals in three commodities,” said Austin. “They’re the three E’s: exploration, excitement and education.”
In 2009, Ballard flew to Houston to speak to the sponsors of GeoFORCE Texas, the nation’s largest pipeline program encouraging high school students to pursue careers in science, engineering and math. Excited about Ballard’s plan for the Nautilus and recognizing their shared goals, representatives from ExxonMobil funded an educator at sea this year. Ballard also invited Austin to join Nautilus Live as co-chief scientist for work offshore of Israel last year and again for the Western Mediterranean and Israel legs of this year’s expedition.
The Western Mediterranean is closing like a pair of scissors, squeezing fluid out of deep sediments. As a geologist, Austin was searching for signs of this compression such as mud volcanoes, hydrothermal vents, sediment slumps and gas seeps. Biologists were also interested to see what communities of life might sprout in such poorly understood environments.
“This part of the Mediterranean, that includes the Straits of Gibraltar, is one of the world’s most complicated pieces of the ocean basins,” said Austin. “And that complication caused by the coming together of the continent of Africa with the southern part of Europe.”
Austin said these expeditions differ from other scientific cruises he’s participated in for at least a couple of reasons. First, because students and the general public are viewing the live video feed and asking questions in real time, he’s engaged in constant conversation about what he’s seeing and thinking. Doing that for 12 hours a day for 10 days is, he said, physically exhausting.
Second, deploying and driving the ROVs is a much slower process than towing seismic instruments behind a moving ship as he is accustomed to doing. It takes an hour or two to deploy an ROV down to the seafloor, which in the Mediterranean sometimes means as far as 2,500 meters. Then, while they’re at work, the ROVs crawl along the bottom at about half a knot, taking in as much visual information as possible and also gathering biological and geological samples.
During an expedition last year, the crew of the Nautilus discovered dense populations of deep water coral, crabs, shrimp and fish off the coast of Israel. Local scientists and environmentalists are now lobbying for the area to be designated a marine sanctuary. Austin was a co-chief scientist on the Nautilus then and will again be co-chief for the return to the Eastern Mediterranean this Nov. 10-18. The team plans to further explore the coral communities and a nearby submarine canyon with intriguing geology.
Join the team via a live, 24/7 video feed — and get your questions answered in real time — by visiting Nautilus Live.