Mission: Microbial Stowaways: Exploring Shipwreck Microbiomes in the deep Gulf of Mexico
Geographic Area: Gulf of Mexico
Date: June 27, 2019
Yesterday was a doozy of a day I think everyone on the ship would agree. One frustrating setback after another had to be overcome, but one by one each problem was solved and the day ended successfully. If you would like to read more about this expedition, it is featured on the NOAA Ocean Exploration and Research website.
The first discovery yesterday morning was that the ship’s pole-mounted ultrashort baseline tracking system (USBL) had been zapped with electricity overnight and was unusable. This piece of equipment is a key piece of a complex system. Without it we would not know precisely where the ROV was, nor could we control the sweeps of the ROV over the shipwrecks for accurate mapping. The scheduled dive time of 1330 (that’s 1:30PM!) was out of the question. There was even talk of returning to port to get new equipment. Yikes. This would cost the expedition $30,000-$40,000 for a full 24 hours of operation, and no one wanted to do this.
Max, the team’s underwater systems engineer, worked his magic, and replaced the damaged part. This required expert knowledge and some tricky maneuvers. Once this was fixed, the next step was to send a positioning beacon down to the seafloor to calibrate the signal from the ship to the ROV so that we would be able to track it precisely. Calibrating means that the ship and the ROV have to agree on where home is. The beacon is attached to three floats connected together to make a “lander”, and then 2 heavy weights are attached as well. The weights take the beacon down. The lander brings it back to the surface later. The deployment went without a hitch. However, when the lander floated to the surface, we noticed it was floating in a strange way. When we hauled it aboard, we discovered that one of the glass floats had imploded – probably due to a material defect under the intense pressure at 1200m below sea level – and all we had left of that unit was a shattered mess of yellow plastic.
In spite of that, the calibration was complete and we could send the ROV on its mission. We loaded the experiments onto the back of the ROV, along with another lander and weights. This was the exciting moment! The crane lifted the ROV off the ship deck and swung it out over the water. But in the process, the chain holding the weights broke and, with a mighty groan from all of us watching, both of them sank into the sea. Back came the ROV for a new set of weights. Luckily nothing was damaged. By 1745 (5:30PM), 5 hours after the scheduled time, the ROV went over the side for a second time successfully. Once this was done the Chief Scientist was able to crack a smile and relax a bit.
Now we had an hour to wait for the ROV to reach the sea floor again, and begin its mission of deploying and retrieving experiments. Inside the cabin of the ship, some of us sat mesmerized by the drifting phytoplankton on the big screen, hoping to see the giant squid that had been spotted on the last expedition. Up in the pilothouse the captain was on duty holding the ship in one spot for as long as it took for the ROV to return. Not an easy job!
Yesterday I saw what scientific exploration is really like. As someone said, “Two means one, and one means none,” meaning that when you are out at sea, you have to have a second or even a third of every critical piece of equipment because something is inevitably going to break and you will not be able to run to Walmart for a new one. Failures and setbacks are part of the game. As a NOAA Teacher at Sea, I am looking at all that goes on on the ship through the lens of a classroom teacher. Yesterday’s successes were due to clear headed thinking, perseverance, and team work by many. These are precisely the qualities I hope I can foster in my students.
NOAA Teacher at Sea Steven Allen Aboard R/V Bellows August 9-18, 2011
Mission: Exploring the Submerged New World Part III Geographical Area: Florida Middle Grounds off the West Coast of Florida Date: August 14, 2011
Science and Technology Log
Early morning, August 13, 2011, the weather is cooperating with calm waters. Members of the archaeological research crew and the R/V Bellows crew clear off the stern deck, so the floating screen could be pulled back up and the pump motor for the induction dredge could be mounted on it. This modified design made it more stable and easier to use. The floating screen and induction dredge were then towed into place by the Bellow’s Boston Whaler to the position marked after yesterday’s dives. At the buoy it was anchored and the snorkel for the pump (a long tube that draws in the water) was primed for suction.
According to dive plan protocol, each dive has an assigned Safety Diver who records dive times, tank numbers and PSI on all tanks, both before and after the dive. The Safety Diver with all of their dive gear is on standby. The divers below have the arduous task of moving and then working the large (100’ long) and 6” diameter induction dredge into spots where the rock outcroppings and the sand meet. These features indicate the presence of a possible river channel.
With the assigned Safety Diver and I positioned on the floating screen, the divers swam into position for their descent and dive. The time in on the first dive was 15:19. After allowing for the divers to descend, the pump motor was started. The dredge works on the “Venturi” system. As the pump suctions water from the snorkel into the main 6” line via a tapered 4″ line, this induces a vacuum in the 6” tube which the divers use to remove sediment from the bottom. The time out on the first dive was 15:54 with an actual bottom time (ABT) of 35 minutes and the maximum depth was 38 feet. On the screen a quantity of sedimentary shells, sand dollars and old pieces of coral were raised. The hope is to get through the top layer of marine sediment then through a layer of fresh water sediment to uncover the remains of a terrestrial landscape.
After an appropriate surface interval (determined by dive charts) and since the weather was still cooperating, a second dive was planned for after dinner. Again, a safety diver and I were positioned on the floating screen and dredge, while the divers entered off the port side of the Bellows and surface swam over to the screen platform. Time In on the second dive was 19:36. As the divers descended, the pump motor was started and the divers below began to remove more top layer sediment and continue to survey the sub-surface features. Two divers also repositioned the floating screen platform anchors. With the sun dipping lower in the western horizon, the floating screen began filling up with sediment. Time out for the dive was 20:05. With a ABT of 29 minutes for the second dive, Principal Investigator, Dr. Andy Hemmings, reported that the divers had excavated a hole roughly one meter deep.
Following the dive, everyone worked to get the divers and their gear out of the water, which was no small task because the Bellows had to leave behind their dive platform that made for easier access in and out of the water for divers. This meant handing up the tanks, buoyancy compensators (BCs), weight belt and fins to the stern deck. Members of the research mission then held a debriefing meeting. Everyone was excited because of how the equipment was working and looked forward to the next day’s dive and continuing to go deeper through the top marine layer of sediment. With a full moon rising, the team filled the air tanks so the mission could get an early start on Sunday.
August 14, Sunday morning—2-4 foot swells and the wind has picked up (12 to 16 knots) out of the west by northwest. Today, we are on a wait and see plan until 11 am. The weather poses a safety hazard for the divers coming back onboard the Bellows without a dive platform and for the team members on the floating screen and induction dredge. By noon the swells had partially subsided and the decision was made to continue diving. Dive #5 went in the water at 3:08 and came up at 3:36. The induction dredge worked fine and more marine sediment was removed. However, due to the waves, the divers below had lost the location of the excavation hole dug on the previous day.
With the swells increasing, Dive #6, a two person dive, went in at 16:59 and came out at 17:08. The original excavation hole was located and marked with a buoy. However, with this dive, the pump motor received a direct hit by a large wave and the pump became inoperable. With the swells increasing and weather reports showing an encroaching front, the decision was made to pull the floating screen and pump out of the water and onto the stern deck of the R/V Bellows.
Thus far on the mission, between modifying the dredging equipment at the dock and out at sea, loading and storing the gear, as well as with assisting the divers and the Bellows crew, I can honestly say that the nature of the work has been much more physically strenuous than I imagined it would be. For the past three days, the work days have been in excess of 12 hours per day and this is in high temperatures and humidity. I have found myself relying quite heavily on my past experiences in construction. But, as the captain remarked, it is very rewarding to see how everyone pulled together as a team, especially when things get a little rough, or as he put it, “on a pitching, heaving, rolling deck.”
This was especially the case when we were raising the floating screen/dredge out of the water and onto the stern of the Bellows in 3-5 foot swells this afternoon. It took two divers in the water to secure the hoses, a man on the platform and a number of hands on the stern deck working together. At one point, as the main wire hoist was raising the floating platform, the main wire steel braided cable snapped, sending the floating screen and dredge back into the ocean from a height of five feet.
At the end of a somewhat tense forty-five minutes or so, we not only had the floating screen/dredge secured, but also the Bellow’s Boston Whaler was returned to the 01 top deck. As a testament to the expertise of the Bellows crew (not to mention the Mercyhurst team), this was all done safely with only a few minor scrapes and bruises; one of which included a small bump on my head where the steel cable had bounced off my head when it had snapped. Moreover, a most delicious dinner of salmon, sweet potatoes and salad was served afterward as if this were all just routine for them.
NOAA Teacher at Sea
Steven Allen Aboard R/V Bellows August 9 — 18, 2011
Mission: Exploring the Submerged New World Part III
Geographical Area: West Coast of Florida Date: August 2, 2011
My name is Steven Allen and my two lifelong passions are understanding our planet (while enjoying and protecting it) and understanding our past. Furthermore, I enjoy sharing these passions with my students. I hold a Master’s Degree in history from Florida Atlantic University, as well as an Interdisciplinary Certificate in Environmental Studies and a Heritage Awareness Diving Certificate.
As a middle school social studies teacher at Palm Beach Maritime Academy for the past eight years, I have sought to infuse the standard curriculum with the main ideas of ocean literacy, namely the influence the oceans have on humans and the impact that humans have on the oceans. Combining ocean literacy with a strong belief in experiential learning, I take students into the field to experience this relationship first hand; for example, seventh- and eighth-graders trek (locally, known as slogging) into the Everglades to measure nitrate, phosphate and pH levels as markers for pollutants. We also regularly visit our partner organization, Palm Beach Maritime Museum, at the old Coast Guard Station in the middle of the Lake Worth Inlet to do seining and species identification.
In addition to organizing marine-science- and maritime-based field trips, I organize student civic activities centered on marine conservation. Working with local agencies, our students have planted over a thousand mangrove seedlings to help restore estuary habitats.
Annually, I spearhead student participation in the International Coastal Cleanup in the Lake Worth Lagoon. In 2010, the Ocean Conservancy recognized our school for its “outstanding and dedicated service to the International Coastal Cleanup” following our seventh consecutive year of participation. I also help organize our participation in the Lake Worth Street Painting Festival where students create maritime- and marine-science-themed street paintings. This year students drew attention to the problem of shark finning by creating a shark with a banner underneath stating “Stop Shark Finning.” In 2010, the school and I were recognized by the Loggerhead Marinelife Center as finalists in their Blue Awards for our ongoing commitment to the conservation and understanding of our oceans.
Science Log and Mission Background
As a maritime academy history teacher, my understanding of the past and of the planet has taken on a decidedly “blue” color. I have increasingly immersed myself into the role of the oceans on our planet and come to understand that no history of the Americas (or the world for that matter) can be divorced from an environmental understanding of the role of the oceans. For the Americas, oceans first acted as barriers, then later as conduits for people to merge in the New World. It is for this reason that I am extremely excited to be a NOAA Teacher at Sea participant, accompanying archaeologists, Dr. Jim Adovasio and Dr. Andy Hemmings, both of Mercyhurst College, on the ocean exploration mission, Exploring the Submerged New World 2011. This mission, aboard the R/V Bellows, is the third in a series in the Gulf of Mexico in which they seek to uncover artifacts from some of the earliest inhabitants of the Americas that now lie underwater.
The logic for this mission follows from the fact that during the last Ice Age, climate change caused ocean levels to significantly decrease. The exposed land of Florida’s peninsula was much greater, especially on the western Gulf of Mexico side where Florida’s continental shelf has a gradual slope. For food supplies, early inhabitants were prone to coastal habitation. Indeed, circumstantial evidence has been uncovered by local fishermen and dredging activities that suggest to scientists that artifacts exist in this late Pleistocene, but now submerged, landscape. Exploring the Submerged New World 2011 will explore this underwater landscape that has not been touched by human activities for thousands of years. This is incredibly exciting.
Finding these underwater artifacts, however, has been likened to “finding a needle in a haystack.” Previous ocean explorer missions in 2008 and 2009 identified likely spots for the haystacks in this vast underwater landscape by mapping the intersection of the Ice Age coastline and ancient drowned river beds flowing from Florida in an area known as the Florida Middle Grounds. In 2011, mission scientists hope to uncover the “needles” at these identified zones. New technology such as ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) and side-scan sonar, have made a significant amount of the underwater landscape mapping possible. As a NOAA Teacher at Sea, I will be able to bring these real-world applications for ROVs back to my classroom, where I have worked for the past two years developing an ROV curriculum and working with student groups in constructing ROVs for competition.
As I tell my students, the age of discovery is not over. In the future, new technology will allow even more access to previously unexplored sites in the oceans. Exciting new discoveries are inevitable. It is not a matter of if, but simply when new discoveries will be uncovered from the world’s oceans. With the proper education and training today’s students can be the ones to tell a fuller story of the past. This exploration cruise affords me the opportunity to give students insights into the variety of marine and maritime-related fields that are associated with underwater archaeological exploration.
New discoveries will ultimately lead to greater understanding and possibly new interpretations of the past. One of the greatest benefits students will get is a deeper understanding of how scientists piece together the past. Previous archaeological discoveries by Dr. Adovasio at the Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Pennsylvania along with archaeological data from other sites, such as Monte Verde in Chile, have refuted the “Clovis First” interpretation and led to a reinterpretation of the arrival of the First Americans.
In a similar manner, any discoveries in the Gulf of Mexico will undoubtedly expand our understanding of the First Americans. To me, it is critical to bring this scientific process into the classroom. Too often students see the past as a set of fixed facts in textbooks. Instead, students need to understand the scientific process by which historians and archaeologists construct their pictures of the past based upon the available data and evidence. Our understanding of the past, especially the remote pre-historical past, is at best an incomplete picture. When new data presents itself it must fit into the existing interpretations, or those interpretations themselves must be altered. In this manner, students will understand that reconstructing the past works along the lines of the scientific method found in other disciplines.