Deep-sea explorer Robert Ballard, who discovered the wreck of the Titanic, is leading an expedition to explore the Cayman Trough.
Mr. Ballard and Katherine Croff Bell, both of the Ocean Exploration Trust, are heading a team of researchers aboard the Exploration Vessel Nautilus, which docked in the Cayman Islands this week to take on new crew members before sailing to the Cayman Trough on Tuesday.
The team’s mission is to map the geological, biological, chemical and archaeological aspects of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.
Using remotely operated vehicles Hercules and Argus, the team is taking high definition video, environmental measurements and collecting samples of the ocean floor.
The Nautilus Corps of Exploration includes a rotating team of more than 150 scientists, engineers, educators and students exploring poorly understood regions of the world’s oceans.
This expedition is the latest in Mr. Ballard’s underwater explorations. His numerous discoveries have included the German battleship Bismarck, the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Yorktown and the patrol torpedo boat John F. Kennedy commanded in World War II. The explorer also led a mission to the Black Sea, locating several ancient shipwrecks.
This latest exploratory mission is being streamed live online at www.nautiluslive.org. Viewers can see the live video feed being transmitted from the remote vehicles and ask the crew members questions. Although this is not the first time Nautilus missions have been streamed online, it is the first time the vessel has made its way to the Caribbean.
The mission began in June and will continue until November with the exception of a break in September during which the Nautilus will return to port to avoid peak hurricane season.
The vessel and her crew have already faced some rough weather when they encountered the remnants of a tropical storm on their way to Grand Cayman.
The Nautilus is equipped with side-scan and multi-beam sonar that enables the team to identify potential areas of interest on the ocean floor. The remote vehicles are then used to explore the area more extensively.
Hercules began diving the Cayman Trough on Tuesday, submerging to approximately 4,000 meters, or almost 2.5 miles, the vehicle’s maximum depth limit, in search of undiscovered hydrothermal vents in the region. This is the deepest dive of the mission so far.
The Cayman Trough is the deepest area of the Caribbean Sea and, even at 2.5 miles, Hercules will still be more than 1.8 miles above the Trough’s maximum depth.
Students, educators take the dive
Students and educators with JASON Learning, a nonprofit organization founded by Mr. Ballard in 1989, are also taking part in the deep-sea mission.
The students and teachers are part of JASON’s national Argonaut program, which facilitates firsthand interactions with scientists in a hands-on learning environment. Laura Batt, director of educational programs for JASON Learning, joined the first rotation of Argonauts to experience life aboard the Nautilus.
“This program allows students to experience real research in real-time alongside scientists and engineers, and they get to go on expeditions and work alongside scientists in the field,” she said.
The first group of Argonauts, which consisted of five students and two educators, joined the Nautilus in Galveston, Texas, for the first leg of the voyage.
Mrs. Batt said that the students enjoyed being able to meet Mr. Ballard and Ms Croff Bell and learn firsthand what deep-sea research expeditions entail.
“I think every single one of them said it was a life-changing experience to be immersed in the science in such an intimate way,” she said. The Argonauts were also impressed by the sheer size and sophistication of the Nautilus, as well as by the warm reception they received from everyone on board.
“Everything is just crawling with technology and everyone on the ship is extremely friendly and generous with their time,” Mrs. Batt said.
The Argonauts were able to spend time on Grand Cayman before flying back to the United States. The group walked the historic Mastic Trail with National Trust for the Cayman Islands Field Officer Stuart Mailer, and snorkeled both the reef and Stingray City sandbar with Captain Marvin’s.
Mrs. Batt said the students especially enjoyed snorkeling off the reef. “One of them said to me, ‘This is coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life’, just seeing the fish that they’ve read about in their science books when they’re studying coral reefs,” she said.
The second group of Argonaut students and educators will board the ship in Puerto Rico and travel with the team to Antigua.
Past deep-sea expeditions
The Cayman Trough has become a hotspot for deep sea exploration in recent years. Hydrothermal vents in the region were first discovered during an exploratory mission of the Mid-Cayman Ridge partly funded by NASA in 2009. Four vent sites, named Von Damm, Piccard, Europa, and Walsh, have been discovered over the years.
The space agency hoped to determine whether the technology used to monitor the vents could also be used to search for life on Jupiter’s frozen moon Europa.
The researchers took samples of organisms during their explorations of the vents. Among their discoveries was a new species of shrimp with light sensors instead of eyes.
The researchers returned to the Cayman Trough in 2010 to search for more previously undiscovered species.
A third mission that focused on locating the sources for the Europa and Walsh vent sites took place earlier this year. The sources of the Von Damm and Piccard vent sites were traced in earlier missions. The vents at the Piccard site are the deepest and hottest black smokers discovered to date.
The Nautilus team told viewers on Tuesday that, should they discover new hydrothermal vents, they expected to encounter wildlife similar to that discovered at the Mid-Cayman Ridge vents.
The Nautilus is scheduled to return to Cayman this week for a personnel change.