Skip to main content

Deep ocean-mapping ship has been exploring waters off California coast

A view of the NOAAS Okeanos Explorer seen docked in the San Francisco Bay near the Bay Bridge in San Francisco.
The NOAAS Okeanos Explorer, a science vessel, recently docked in San Francisco. | Source: Courtesy NOAA Ocean Exploration

The Okeanos Explorer, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration deep-sea mapping ship—the only federal vessel solely dedicated to ocean exploration—has been finishing out 2023 working out of the Bay Area.

First, the Okeanos went south to explore the waters around the Channel Islands. Then, more recently, the 224-foot ship was exploring around the Farallon Islands off San Francisco after working the seas around Alaska. It made a pit stop in early December in San Francisco, docking across from the Exploratorium last week after completing its final expedition of the year.

The vessel has been all over the planet since it was first commissioned 15 years ago, developing a repository of data researchers can use to better understand the ocean.

"We're just sort of scratching the surface," said Kasey Cantwell, the operations chief for NOAA Ocean Exploration. "We actually have better maps and know more about Mars than we do of our own (oceans). Which kind of blows a lot of people's minds."

The work is varied. Much of the Okeanos explorer's mission focuses on mapping the ocean floor. Humans have managed to map only about 50% of the ocean floor off the U.S., a number that drops to 25% when talking about the world's oceans.

Its discoveries are important, as much of the researchers' work relates to climate change and its effect on oceans. It's about collecting as much data as possible and relaying it back to the scientists who need it. Much of what they do can be seen in real-time via satellite and virtually all of their data is accessible to the public within a few months.

A ship at sea
NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer at sea during the 2022 Caribbean Mapping expedition. | Source: Image courtesy of Anna Sagatov

The Okeanos Explorer began as a Navy Military Sealift Command vessel dragging sonar equipment listening for Soviet submarines during the Cold War. The ship then became a U.S. Coast Guard cutter, doing drug interdictions in the Caribbean. NOAA took it in 2004 and spent four years converting it for deep-sea exploration.

"It's a great platform; this ship has served the nation for almost as long as I've been alive," said Capt. Colin Little. "But we are also building new ships. We need new modern ships. Old ships take a lot of maintenance money to keep going. The ship is in great condition, but it's a big investment, maintenance-wise. And so we are building new ships, and that's really exciting."

Operations officer Lt. Tim Holland explained that NOAA is one of eight uniformed service branches in the U.S. government. We all know the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard and Space Force. Holland said there are two other branches considered "uniformed" services: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and NOAA. 

Okeanos Explorer has seven NOAA personnel and a crew of about 50 when considering researchers, engineers, stewards and other contractors, as well as technical experts. NOAA has about 15 research vessels and 12 to 15 aircraft, including some of the more famous ones that chase hurricanes.

"We're just here to support the mission," Holland said.

The Okeanos has three unmanned exploration vehicles, two underwater autonomous vehicles named Eagle Ray and Mola Mola that follow preprogrammed routes and can get images as deep as 200 meters. Then there's the D2, a much larger machine resembling some sort of space probe. The D2 is controlled remotely by an operator about the ship and can explore down to 6,000 meters—about 3.7 miles—down.

A man speaking at a terminal
Colin D. Little, commanding officer of the Okeanos Explorer, explains many of the controls and screens on the ship's bridge of the Okeanos. | Source: Ray Saint Germain/Bay City News

Max Woolsey is an engineer of unmanned maritime systems from the University of Southern Mississippi, who works with two smaller vehicles that take images and use multibeam echo sounding to map the sea floor.

He said the ocean is unpredictable—so much so that when he's told not to expect much but a flat sea floor, he instead finds high ridges and rock outcroppings.

"That just goes to show that, even in areas where it might not look so interesting on the map, there's so much more diversity down there, a very interesting environment," Woolsey said.

The scientist also discussed human impact. During a recent excursion in the marine sanctuary out by the Farallons, the crew stumbled across lots of discarded fishing equipment.

"This is old fishing debris, old crab trap and lines down there," Woolsey said. "It kind of goes to show that even when you think kind of a random spot to do a sample, that you're going to see debris out there that just lets us know we need to be careful with our oceans."

The crew has discovered things that are changing how scientists think. Before coming through the Panama Canal earlier this year from the East Coast (The Okeanos Explorer's home port is Newport, Rhode Island), the crew explored what they thought was a shipwreck that turned out to be a natural formation. Spending more than an hour observing about 50 small sharks feeding on a swordfish on the ocean floor nearby, they spied a type of rockfish oceanographers previously believed was a scavenger.

A person speaks to an audience
Rachel Gulbraa of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration affiliate, speaks about ocean exploration at the Exploratorium. | Source: Ray Saint Germain/Bay City News

They watched rockfish sneak over to the edge of the feeding scrum and ingest a small shark whole, something no one had seen before.

"So we actually helped inform a change in the fisheries' dietary plan and understanding of this fish because not only did it eat it while it was at home and not a scavenged dead animal, but he was an active predator," Cantwell said. "That was not something that was known."

The D2 is the go-to device for deep dives and remains tethered to the ship and controlled by someone above. It has banks of lights, 16 cameras, high-definition video cameras and specimen-collecting apparatus big enough to collect enough cold water for specimens to remain alive as they ascend.

It also has a companion vehicle that helps light the way of the dark depths and provides cameras for adding a third dimension to the images.

"What's really cool about the way this works is that everything that the two vehicles are experiencing, we're seeing in real-time," Cantwell said. "This is what we're typically streaming from shore. So if you have seen any of the imagery on our website or some of the videos and replying, typically what you're seeing is the perspective from this camera right here."

In August, the Okeanos Explorer was in Alaskan waters, using D2 to examine a small seamount a couple of miles down. While gliding over a rocky outcropping, it spotted a globby organism that videographers called a "yellow hat." As with all D2's dives, the process was being livestreamed.

READ MORE: Why Is There a Warship in San Francisco Bay?

The golden dome-shaped creature was about 4 inches wide and tightly adhered to a rock. Scientists zoomed in and were stumped. They used the D5 to bring the mysterious "golden egg" aboard. Biologists are still trying to identify it.

"Every day, we kind of seem to find things that are different than we expected," Cantwell said. "Even on trips where you're pretty sure you know when you're going to see, something's always a little special."

Much of what Okeanos does relies on its ability to provide real-time information not only to scientists onshore with the multiple missions and studies the crew works with but also to science classes and anyone with an Internet connection.

"We do things differently in ocean exploration; we're not typically going after one question or one person's question," Cantwell said. "We're out there to basically be at the edge of the frontier where science is known. A lot of what we're doing is actually reaching out to partners and the sciences well in advance of the next addition. And then we take all of that information and knowledge and kind of bring it back together."

The Okeanos Explorer's next mission begins in Hawaii next April after a stint in Vallejo for repairs. To find out more, visit its website.

Filed Under