Scientists using HOV Alvin aboard R/V Atlantis discover pristine deep-sea coral reefs in the Galápagos Marine Reserve
Scientists have discovered extensive, ancient deep-sea coral reefs within the Galápagos Marine Reserve (GMR)-the first of their kind ever to be documented inside the marine protected area (MPA) since it was established in 1998. The reef, found at 400-600 meters (1,310-1,970 feet) depth at the summit of a previously unmapped seamount in the central part of the archipelago, supports a breathtaking mix of deep marine life.
Oregon Public Broadcasting: Deep-sea volcano off the Oregon Coast helps scientists forecast eruptions
In this video still, the ROV Jason is being launched on Tuesday, June 28, 2022. It will descend about a mile below the ocean surface to the Axial Seamount. Photo by Stephani Gordon/OPB/OPB.
Oregon Public Broadcasting Reporter Jes Burns on takes a deep dive into monitoring volcanic activity at Axial Seamount-using ROV Jason-and developing future volcanic predictions. Read the whole story here and don’t miss the video version (or its original sea chanty).
Rick Sanger (#44) and Nick O’Sadcia (#45) are the newest Alvin pilots, making them qualified to pilot the sub on science expeditions in the deep sea.Rick Sanger is one of Alvin’s newest Navy-certified pilots. Photo by the Alvin Team, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Rick Sanger is a research engineer at WHOI and has worked as an Alvin electrical engineer for nearly two decades, helping reconceive the electrical side of the submersible through two overhauls.
Sanger came to the Alvin Group after a career at the Marine Biological Laboratory and has decades of engineering, boating, and diving experience, said Alvin Group Lead Bruce Strickrott. “He built some of the most complex systems on the sub and knows them both electronically and mechanically.”Nick O’Sadcia is one of Alvin’s newest Navy-certified submersible pilots. Photo by Marley Partker, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Nick O’Sadcia first came to WHOI as a Cape Cod Community College intern-through a program run by NDSF user Julie Huber-and joined the Alvin Group in 2018. He is presently an at-sea Engineer II.
“Nick came into the program as a newly graduated mechanical engineer,” Strickrott said. “He came up through the disassembly, reassembly, and getting the sub back to sea. One of his pilot-in-training dives was the first time Alvin passed 4,500 meters.”
The pilot-in-training program begins with studying all aspects of the sub and training dives under supervision. When candidates are ready to go up for certification they appear before a board of current Alvin pilots, a science review panel made up of NDSF science users, a technical review panel of WHOI Engineers, and the U.S. Navy Deep Submergence Pilot Certification Board, which is run by the commodore of Submarine Development Squadron 5 (currently Captain Gary Montalvo). Sanger passed his certification in October 2022 and O’Sadcia in January 2023.
In addition to driving the sub, Alvin pilots maintain the sub, whether it is their dive day or not. “The culture we have for this whole group is that everything you do for the sub really matters,” Strickrott said. “But once you start diving, the importance of all that work really hits home. Both Rick and Nick are people who really care about that culture. They both did really well in the certification process.”
Sanger is Alvin’s 44th pilot and the 67th civilian to receive deep submergence pilot certification from the Navy. O’Sadcia is Alvin’s 45th pilot and 68th in navy certification.
Interested in becoming a future Alvin pilot?
The Alvin Group is hiring a Mechanical Engineer and an Electrical Engineer, both of whom will have the opportunity to join the pilot-in-training program. “We are actively seeking candidates from diverse backgrounds,” Strickrott added. “We are looking for people who have the skills and aptitude for this work-who like to take things apart and fix them-not necessarily the degree.”
Roxanne Beinart, photo by Alex Deciccio.
What do you study?
I’m a marine microbiologist. I study microbes that are in symbiotic relationships with other organisms-especially those that live at deep-sea hydrothermal vents and cold seeps.
There’s not a lot of food available in the deep sea, but at hydrothermal vents and cold seeps there are microbes that can do chemosynthesis-which is like photosynthesis but without sunlight. These animals produce organic matter from the chemical energy that comes out of the vents or cold seeps. Some have evolved to farm bacteria in or on their tissues they can then consume. It’s pretty wild.
How do you use NDSF vehicles?
Most recently I worked with both ROV Jason and AUV Sentry on the same expedition to the Lau Basin near Tonga. We used Jason to collect hydrothermal vent animals and microbes. We also had filtration devices to collect microbes from the fluids on and around the seafloor. And then we used Sentry-outfitted with a plankton sampler known as Sentry Precision Robotic Impeller Driven Sampler or Plankzooka-to collect larvae for my collaborators Drs. Shawn Arellano and Craig Young.
You are also the designated “Friend of Alvin” on the Deep Submergence Science Committee (DeSSC), what does that mean?
A thriving deep sea community at a hydrothermal vent in the Lau Basin. Photo by ROV Jason, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
What do samples from Jason and Sentry tell you about these animals?
The animals we’re studying are snails and mussels that look just like ones you’d see near shore, but they have a greatly reduced digestive system. Farming bacteria is clearly lucrative for them. They get to unusually large sizes at incredible densities at hydrothermal vents. We see huge numbers of them covering these areas.
We think that the larvae from these animals don’t have the bacteria. They all start out free-floating and disperse, and then if they want to survive, they have to acquire their particular symbiotic bacteria somewhere from the environment.
How did you come to study deep-sea biology?
Through microbes! I think most people get into this field through love of the mystery of the deep. But I came in specifically because the microbial symbiosis I was really interested in happens near hydrothermal vents and cold water seeps.
I came to love microbes when I was ten. I was given a petri dish at an after-school science program and told I could rub whatever I liked onto it. A week later we put the resulting microbial colonies under a microscope. That is what sold me on microbes: they’re this wild and invisible mystery all around us.
How did you get started using deep-sea vehicles?
I did the DeSSC new-user program pretty early as a graduate student. That was a straightforward way to learn about the vehicles that were available, the scientists using them, and how to write them into proposals. You don’t have to be funded with a vehicle to be a potential user and anyone-from undergraduate to early-career professors-can be a part of the new user program. A few years after that I was a remote participant in a DeSSC/NDSF chief scientist training program, where they invited a group of early career scientists to sail on R/V Atlantis for an Alvin mission and learn how to run a cruise as a chief scientist. Now I’m a member of DeSSC and the new user program is really important to me, and to all of us. Bringing new users in is one way we can make the future of deep submergence more inclusive.
Roxanne Beinart holding a deep sea snail. Photo by Michelle Hauer.
Aerial view of R/V Atlantis and R/V Neil Armstrong at sea together. Photo by Kent Sheasley © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Both R/V Neil Armstrong and R/V Atlantis will have expanded bandwidth at sea for the rest of 2023. The faster upload and download speeds are part of a fleetwide trial, funded by the Office of Naval Research (ONR), and are for use by everyone sailing-crew as well as science parties.
“This bandwidth is to increase morale and communications for everyone on board,” said Sarah Fuller, the operations manager for shipboard scientific services at WHOI. “But it’s critical as ship equipment is brought into the 21st century and gets more complicated. Expanded bandwidth has become essential for remote troubleshooting, and that is one of the main reasons ONR is trialing this increase.”
Faster data speeds will also allow for a wide range of telepresence and data exchange that was difficult at former speeds, including remote participation on scientific expeditions, the ability for students or professors to attend classes on shore during a cruise, and much faster transfer of data back to shore.
“This will increase the inclusivity of our at-sea operations,” Fuller added. “People who can’t go to sea-because of medical, teaching responsibilities, or family commitments-who are experts in their fields will be able to meaningfully participate from shore.”
Armstrong will have 8×8 bandwidth (8 Mb/s upload and 8 Mb/s download), with bursts up to 10×10 through midsummer, at which point it will increase when the vessel starts going to higher latitudes. Atlantis will have 20×20. These data speeds are not unlimited, Fuller noted, and will still require coordination. Science parties that have regularly scheduled video calls during an expedition should include these on their schedules so they can coordinate with ship crew.
Dives produce visual observations, measurements of depth, temperature, ocean chemistry, pressure, and data from the scientific equipment added for a mission. Observers on Alvin and Jason dives document ocean life encountered and equipment setup, and recover precisely-located physical samples. Sentry dives produce high-resolution maps that often need to be delivered immediately after recovery to help refine subsequent activities.
For years, data was handed off to the chief scientist at the conclusion of an expedition, and hard copies were stored at NDSF and in the WHOI Data Library and Archive. Starting in the early 2000’s, some data was supplied by chief scientists to the Marine Geoscience Data System (MGDS), an NSF-funded data repository. MGDS curates seafloor and sub-seafloor data and makes it openly accessible.
Since 2020, NDSF and MGDS have been collaborating to streamline data management efforts and broaden access to all NDSF data for the oceanographic community. At the heart of this initiative is a growing data team with complementary expertise addressing all aspects of NDSF data stewardship. Here are some of the key members of that team.
“We are laying the groundwork for coherent and holistic collection of data within the deep submergence community.”
–Tina Haskins, NDSF Associate Director for Data and Science Operations
“Data acquired with NDSF vehicles is a national resource that should be accessible to the science community and the public alike.”
-Vicki Ferrini, PhD, Director of MGDS and NDSF Associate Director for Data System Strategy
Tina Haskins and Vicki Ferrini are co-directors of the NDSF data team, focusing on operations and strategy, respectively. Both Haskins and Ferrini have hands-on experience with many aspects of data stewardship. They have sailed as members of the NDSF at-sea operations teams and worked extensively serving data management efforts on shore. Their combined experience and perspectives provide robust leadership for the newly-established data team.
“Vicki has a vision for the best way to handle our data, helping us gain efficiencies, and set goals,” Haskins said. “She has a wealth of corporate data management knowledge and was the inaugural Data Manager for NDSF nearly 20 years ago. Now she is the Director of MGDS at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO), which is where a lot of our data is made available to the community.”
The two directors have co-developed a vision and Haskins oversees implementation. “I’m the boots on the ground here at WHOI,” she said. “We are building the team that can accomplish this vision, and improving our processes so they are more streamlined and data are easier to access.”
The team is focused on making sure data is handled well at sea and delivered seamlessly to scientists and MGDS. This combined effort is intended to make deep-sea data easier to discover and use. The WHOI-based members of the team are primarily focused on the at-sea acquisition and management of data while the LDEO members are focused on preservation and access. The team works collaboratively to connect these complimentary activities.
Scott McCue, NDSF Lead Jason Data Engineer
Scott McCue is the lead data engineer for remotely-operated Jason and travels to sea with the vehicle to process data as it is gathered on an expedition. He also leads on-shore archival of data from all the vehicles at both NDSF and WHOI’s Data Library and Archive.
“Scotty is a driving force in stewarding the data when it comes on-shore and developing the system architecture to archive it,” Haskins said. “He has the most legacy information. He’s been at the facility longer than most of us, so he really understands the ways our data has evolved.”
McCue, who has worked for the facility for over a decade, said he values being part of a team that “captures views and measurements of the deep ocean with scientific rigor and allows opportunities for innovation, discovery, and world travel.”
Joe Garcia, NDSF Lead Alvin Data Engineer
Joe Garcia is the lead data engineer for the human-occupied vehicle Alvin, ensuring that every Alvin expedition has a dedicated data person on board. At sea, Garcia focuses on processing the data that comes off Alvin dives.
“Joe really understands all aspects of how at sea data collection is happening for Alvin,” Haskins said. “And shoreside he is working with Scotty to learn the archival process. He has really stepped up into this new role.”
As a previous member on the Sentry Team, Garcia also helps assemble data from the autonomous underwater vehicle.
Sailing with Alvin and Sentry has given Garcia a firsthand view into the environment that all the data comes from. “I am amazed by the sheer amount of different life forms that live deep down and the immense role that the ocean plays in Earth’s climate,” he said.
Hayley Drennon, Data Manager, Marine Geoscience Data System
Hayley Drennon works at LDEO supporting multiple data projects, and her role on the data team is focused on the migration of NDSF data into MGDS. Her experience with data curation, assembly, and interpretation informs her perspective on user needs for data discovery and access.
“Data is information which has the power to shape discovery,” Drennon said. “The diverse data acquired by NDSF submersibles is an invaluable resource. Making it accessible has the potential to broaden scientific discovery and nurture the inquisitive minds of the next generation.”
Andrew Goodwillie, PhD, Senior Data Manager, Marine Geoscience Data System
Andrew Goodwillie is an LDEO-based collaborator helping with documentation and validation of NDSF data into MGDS. He has been a member of the MGDS team since 2004 and brings his knowledge of the user community and experience with a diversity of data types and access tools.
“The expense and challenge of acquiring data from the bottom of the sea makes every data measurement and every observation an invaluable addition to humanity’s quest to better understand our home planet,” he said. “From researchers to grade-school teachers, NDSF data helps inform our knowledge of the seafloor. Dive photos and video frame grabs of exotic and unusual ecosystems captivate young children; researchers use the data to push the envelope of our understanding.
“Since 71% of the world is covered by ocean water, it’s pleasing to be part of a team that provides data to help humanity grapple with the importance of our watery world.”
Science at sea-part two
In the spirit of adjustment, I asked scientists on the expedition how their goals and approaches have evolved since we’ve been underway. Here is a sampler of what they said:
Isaac Keohane (University of South Carolina) brought two computers and an external hard drive on the expedition for redundancy. As luck would have it, one of his computers died early in the expedition and fried the hard drive along with it. Isaac spent a day and a half reinstalling the software he needed to process sonar multibeam bathymetry data on his second computer. In the end the reinstallation was successful, and Isaac learned the ins and outs of the processing software along the way.
Cherise Spotkaeff (Hawaiian Pacific University) and Emma Brown (Arizona State University) brought multiple sizes of their sampling materials, both anticipating a degree of trial and error. Cherise and Emma were using a UFO (Universal Fluid Obtainer) to collect fluids at the hydrothermal vents. Emma changed the placement of her sample bags on Jason twice to minimize the sample tubing length and thus reduce the dilution of her samples from the ultra pure water that sits in the tubing prior to sample collection. Cherise added a non-slip mat under her sample boxes after the cameras on Jason showed significant wiggling when Jason dipped below the waves on the first dive of the expedition.
Sarah Lamm (University of Kansas) and Jessie Bersson (Arizona State University)came in with hopes of getting sediment and rock fragment samples from Kama’ehuakanaloa but were thrilled when Jason was able to pry sizable chunks of basaltic rock off the summit crater floor.
The challenges Rebecca Rutstein encountered as artist-in-residence are not dissimilar than those the onboard scientists grappled with. Rebecca had to anticipate the supplies she would need and work within a makeshift setting. She framed those challenges as an opportunity to work with what’s available on a boat floating 18 miles offshore. When the lights went out Rebecca was in her laboratory-turned-art-studio. With the boat stirring with crew members problem-solving and alarms sounding, Rebecca knew the only thing for her to do was to keep on painting.
Science at sea-part one
January 9 was the second day of dedicated sample collection for the Kama’ehuakanaloa Hydrothermal Vents Expedition. By mid-morning, ROV Jason was on floor of Pele’s Pit, the newest crater at the underwater summit of Kama’ehuakanaloa (formerly Lo’ihi), documenting new hydrothermal vents and collecting samples. Excitement buzzed through the control van-the operations space for Jason‘s pilot, navigator, and engineer as well as the research scientists on watch-aboard R/V Kilo Moana. Monitors in all the common spaces on the ship were tuned to the science camera mounted on Jason, allowing everyone to see through the ROV’s eyes. Jason was collecting a hydrothermal fluid sample at a new vent when suddenly all the screens in the control van (15 to be exact) went black. A ship-wide power outage had struck.
Those onboard faced no true danger. The Kilo Moana began to slowly drift without any power to run the propellers, but the ship was 18 miles offshore, and if the power was never regained tugboats could arrive well before the ship entered any hairy waters.
The safety of our beloved submarine robot, however, was less certain.Jason was at the base of a 700-meter-wide underwater crater with steep walls stretching over 200-meters-tall. Over a thousand meters of armored cable connected Jason to the ship, and the ship was starting to drift. If the ship were to drift too far, Jason could hit the crater walls or become tangled in its tether and suffer serious damage.Illustration of ROV Jason and Medea connected by a tether cable to a research vessel. Modified from an original by WHOI Creative.
Jason was designed to be buoyant, so the Jason Team knew that as soon as electrical power was lost it would begin floating up toward the surface. In this case Jason was deployed directly beneath its sidekick Medea, which acts as something of a middleman between the ship and Jason (see illustration) so that Jason is not jerked around by the tug of the cable as the back of the ship moves up and down with wave motion.
,But while Jason was beginning to float upwards Medea was stuck in place, like a suspended deep-water anchor. With no power for the ship’s winch, we could not wind in the cable to raise Medea out of the crater which meant Jason, with only a 50-meter “leash” between it and its companion, couldn’t rise out of the crater either.
With the captain and crew ensuring the safety of everyone on board, the highest priority for what the Jason Team could contribute was clear: prioritize using whatever power became available, as soon as possible, to begin hauling Jason and Medea out of harm’s way.
The positioning of the tandem vehicles before the power outage was extremely fortunate. Jason was sampling a vent on the crater floor near the eastern edge of the Pele’s Pit. At the surface the Kilo Moana began to drift to the west, providing much more time to return power to the ship’s winch before Jason encountered the western wall of the crater. In another stroke of luck, the isobaric gas-tight sampler that Jason dropped when the power went out remained attached to the ROV by its electrical cable-even though it was hanging off the front payload basket and dangling in mid-water, the cable held long enough that when power was restored, the Jason pilots were able to fish it back aboard and bring it home safely.
The communication between the Jason Team and the ship’s crew was calm, clear-headed, and efficient. Within what seemed like longer, but was in fact only 18 minutes, power was restored to the winch and hauling in of Jason and Medea began. After another 18 minutes, however, the power to the winch cut out again with Jason and Medea still just below the depth of the crater rim. But after another two minutes, power was restored again and eventually, after just another six minutes, Jason and Medea were hauled safely clear of the underwater crater.
Now that Jason was out of harm’s way, its ascent was slowed as it continued toward the ocean surface while elsewhere was a hive of activity. During the next hour, the Kilo Moana was able to return power to its propellers and control of the ship’s movement ready to welcome Jason and Medea back aboard ship and less than two hours from when the initial black out occurred, Jason and Medea were safely recovered and stowed onboard.The wall of monitors inside the Jason control van. Image taken on the first dive of the expedition, an engineering and multibeam sonar mapping dive. Photo by Jessie Bersson.
While power outages aren’t excessively common on research cruises, this event does encapsulate the nature of conducting science at sea: anything that can go wrong might go wrong at any given moment and-as happened today-without any prior warning. Chief Scientist Chris German’s mantra is to treat every day at sea like it may be your last day for conducting science, which is why he always has a plan B (and a plan C, D, E, and F if it comes to it). It is also why Chris planned the first day of dedicated sample collection to accomplish the highest priority scientific objectives. Now, as the ship heads back to port where more complete troubleshooting of what happened can be conducted, scientists aboard the Kilo Moana are analyzing the samples and data from the first day of sampling.
Kama’ehuakanaloa Seamount (formerly Lo’ihi) has active hydrothermal vents that host thriving microbial life and tell tales from deep within the volcano. These vents essentially live-stream valuable information about the status of the seamount’s hydrothermal and magmatic systems. When the seamount experienced two significant seismic events in 2020 and again in late 2021, WHOI scientist Chris German thought it was time for a temperature check, literally.
The 2023 Kama’ehuakanaloa Hydrothermal Vents Expedition is visiting hydrothermal vents in Pele’s Pit on the summit of the seamount. Pele’s Pit is a 250-300 meter-deep crater that was created during the 1996 eruptive activity at Kama’ehuakanaloa, the seamount’s most recent documented eruption. These vents have been visited multiple times since the 1996 eruption and have been consistently cooling down at an average rate of 1-2˚C per year over the past decade or more-up to and including Chris’ most recent study in 2018.
In May 2020 and December 2021, the US Geological Survey detected major seismic activity at Kama’ehuakanaloa, potentially signaling the movement of magma within the seamount’s underground plumbing system. This seismic activity provokes these questions: How did the magmatic migration influence the seamount’s hydrothermal system? Furthermore, did it alter the surface of the seamount itself?Multibeam bathymetric map of the summit of Kama’ehuakanaloa Seamount (Rouxel et al., 2018: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gca.2017.09.050
To answer these questions, scientists are deploying ROV Jason/Medea to collect samples at six hydrothermal vents and to produce high-resolution multibeam bathymetry. The geochemical, microbiological, and geological data collected from this expedition can be compared to the past vent visits to capture any detectable influence the recent seismic events may have had at the seamount. Vent fluids hotter than expected, for instance, would indicate the influence of shallow magma on the hydrothermal system.WHOI scientists Jeff Seewald (left to right), Chris German, and Sean Sylva. (Photo by Jessie Bersson, ©Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
WHOI scientists Chris German, Jeff Seewald, and Sean Sylva are pursuing these central research objectives, along with a team of early-career participants who are investigating complimentary science objectives of their own. The Jason Team will be pursuing these goals by deploying the ROV to sample and measure the hydrothermal vents at Pele’s Pit more than 1000 meters below the surface.Chris German (WHOI) and Isaac Keohane (University of South Carolina) review incoming bathymetry data from R/V Kilo Moana’s multibeam sonar. (Photo by Jessie Bersson, ©Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
The 2023 Kama’ehuakanaloa Hydrothermal Vents Expedition is an NSF-funded collaborative research expedition running from January 3 to 15, 2023. All blog posts from the expedition can be found here.
This post was written by Jessie Bersson, an early-career participant and science outreach contributor on the 2023 Kama’ehuakanaloa Hydrothermal Vents Expedition. The post was informed by interviews with chief scientist Chris German and other members of the expedition’s science team.
Early career researchers from various institutions set sail aboard the Kilo Moana Research Vessel today to visit Kama’ehuakanaloa Seamount (formerly known as Lō’ihi), the youngest volcano in the Hawaiian-Emperor Seamount Chain.
This NSF-funded collaborative research expedition, led by WHOI Senior Scientists Chris German and Jeff Seewald, is investigating the impact on the subseafloor hydrothermal circulation system of seismic episodes in December 2021 using the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Jason/Medea. This trip builds on a 2018 expedition funded by NASA and NOAA to explore the geology, energy, and microbial communities associated with the seamount.
To expand on the core research objective of this expedition, an open call went out for early-career researchers (ECR) to join and pursue complimentary science questions, while also gaining hands-on experience conducting hydrothermal vent research using Jason. Nine early career researchers and one artist-in-residence were invited to join the expedition, the majority of whom have not been on a research cruise before.
The scientific goals of the ECR participants range from mapping the seamount to documenting the viral communities within hydrothermal vent fluids. Here is a sampler of the research objectives ECR participants will be exploring:
- Emma Brown of Arizona State University will investigate how the vent fluid microbial community responds to different types of carbon sources.
- Soisiri Charin of the University of Minnesota will quantify the potassium isotope compositions of low temperature hydrothermal fluids to gain a better insight in the global marine potassium cycle.
- Zachary Clayton of Arizona State University will use the temperature trends at the hydrothermal vents to determine how the energy availability and vent fluid chemistry changed over time.
- Andy Heard of WHOI will use stable metal isotopes to track redox processes in context of low temperature hydrothermal environments.
- Isaac Keohane of the University of South Carolina will use a multibeam sonar on Jason to determine if the crater and hydrothermal vent fields at Kama’ehuakanaloa have changed since the area was last mapped, particularly since the recent seismic episodes.
- Sarah Lamm of the University of Kansas will collect rock and sediment samples to study the mineral structure of iron oxides at the seamount.
- Cherise Spotkaeff of the Hawaiian Pacific University will describe and characterize the viral community found in the seamount vent fluid using various bioinformatic techniques.
The exploration will be creatively captured by Rebecca Rutstein, the artist in residence, whose work is inspired by the natural world and the multitude of hidden systems lurking in the deep sea.
Follow along over the next two weeks as we document the complex systems hosted by the Kama’ehuakanaloa Seamount.