21st-century explorers

A UVic research team helps pioneer the next generation of scientific ocean expeditions

The UVic expedition team
(l-r): Dustin Shornagel,
Verena Tunnicliffe, grad
student Cherisse Du Preez,
lab manager Jonathan Rose
and John Sherrin.

by Krista Zala

The remotely operated vehicle lands on the seafloor with a gentle thud. As its camera slowly swings around, we see a black basalt floor stretching into the darkness. Hundreds of metres above, a ship bobs in the waters off Indonesia as its control room bustles with activity. When the first creature pops into view, a voice chimes in.

"Hey, Santiago, I win. It's crinoids first," says University of Victoria researcher Dr. Verena Tunnicliffe. But she's not in the control room—she's not even talking to anyone there. Tunnicliffe, the Canada Research Chair in Deep Ocean Research at the University of Victoria, is in a lab at UVic and is talking to a coral expert at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

Welcome to the next generation of scientific cruises, where the sights of the seafloor are beamed from the remotely operated vehicle's camera, to the ship, and then to shore stations around the world via satellite. Just two scientists are on the ship. The rest are "telepresent"—watching and contributing from their stations across North America and Indonesia. All their suggestions are beamed back to John Sherrin, the scientific coordinator on board.

"Everything's buzzing," says Sherrin, a graduate student in UVic's School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, who is researching hot vents on active marine volcanoes. "The pilots ask what we're looking at, and when I ask people on shore, I immediately get answers."

Telepresence opens new realms for scientific expeditions. Researchers and students can join for a few hours or days rather than having to commit to weeks at sea. When an unusual species comes into view, a scientist grabs a frame from the streaming video and sends it to a specialist who responds within hours, often within the same dive.

"We went only to areas that no one has seen before," says Sherrin. Each dive over the three weeks revealed more marine marvels: lumpy angler fish, delicate sea spiders, massive barrel sponges and slender, long-armed relatives of sea stars called crinoids. Corals abounded, too, often with crinoids clinging to them, much to the delight of Tunnicliffe and UVic undergraduate Dustin Schornagel, who is studying these animals.

The cruise had its challenges. The charts for the area were so outdated that the crew mapped the seafloor by night and used their newly made charts for the next day's dive. And the time difference meant that each dive finished around 2 a.m. for observers on the West Coast.

But considering the thousands of details to accommodate—the convoluted permits, finicky telecommunications and unpredictable weather—the cruise was a success. It mapped new hydrothermal regions, discovered new species, and set the stage for future expeditions.

"Being able to explore the unknown and share in the discovery of amazing new habitats and creatures with people around the world is an experience I'll never forget," says Sherrin.

"The whole operation is brand new," says Tunnicliffe. "It is a wonderful way to bring the deep sea to students at UVic and around the world."

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  • The 2010 "telepresence" expedition, which took place this summer off two island chains northeast of North Sulawesi, was led by Indonesia and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
  • UVic's Verena Tunnicliffe was a principal investigator on the expedition because she is a lead biologist in NOAA's expeditions to hydrothermal vents. John Sherrin was invited to be a scientific coordinator based on his experience on a similar NOAA exploratory cruise to Northwest Rota, near Guam.
  • For more information on the expedition, including daily logs and images, visit http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/welcome.html and click on INDEX 2010.
  • UVic is a national and international leader in the study of the oceans, with expertise as far-ranging as ocean-climate interactions, ocean observation systems, physical and chemical oceanography, marine ecology, coastal resource management and ocean engineering.
  • UVic researchers were awarded more than $104 million in outside research grants and contracts in 2008/09—more than double the research support of five years ago.