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The Uncharted Depths: Marine Biology and Exploration with NOAA

The vast expanse of the world’s oceans remains one of the last uncharted frontiers on Earth. Despite the technological advancements of the 21st century, over 80% of our oceans remain unexplored. Adrienne Copeland, PhD, a marine biologist and expert in ocean exploration from NOAA: National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, sheds light on the mysteries of the deep and the importance of continued exploration.

Note: Below article comes from NOAA Ocean Explorer Interview

The Role of Technology in Ocean Exploration

The advancement of technology has played a pivotal role in ocean exploration. With remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), scientists like Copeland can explore the depths without physically diving into the abyss. These ROVs, controlled from the surface, can withstand the extreme pressures of the deep sea, allowing researchers to venture into previously inaccessible regions.

The process of exploration is intricate. The mission team, stationed on the sea surface, controls the ROV, which dives deep into the ocean, capturing images and collecting samples. This method of exploration is not only safer but also more efficient, enabling scientists to cover vast areas in a relatively short time.

Planning and Prioritizing Expeditions

Given the vastness of the oceans, one of the challenges faced by researchers is deciding where to explore next. Contrary to the notion of randomly selecting a spot on the map, the process is much more methodical. The team collaborates with the broader scientific community, spanning disciplines from biology to geology and maritime archaeology, to identify priority areas. Feedback from the community, combined with specific priorities from organizations like NOAA, helps in determining the next exploration site.

Memorable Expeditions and Discoveries

Copeland recalls a monumental expedition off the island of Hawaii, where the team studied the behavior of deep-diving toothed whales, such as short-finned pilot whales and sperm whales. The mission aimed to understand their feeding behaviors and habitats. This expedition was unique as it was the first student-run project on a privately-owned vessel, resulting in multiple PhDs and publications.

Another unexpected discovery was the accidental finding of a maritime vessel wreck in the Gulf of Mexico. While testing equipment in a location believed to be rich in coral and sponge, the team stumbled upon ballast rocks from a sunken ship. Such serendipitous discoveries underscore the vast unknowns that still lie beneath the waves.

The Importance of Baseline Data

One of the primary objectives of marine exploration is to establish a baseline understanding of marine ecosystems. Without this foundational knowledge, it’s challenging to measure the impact of external factors like climate change or pollution. Copeland emphasized the importance of understanding the baseline, stating, “If you don’t understand what’s there and how the animals react to different situations, we won’t understand how they could change moving forward.”

The changing climate and increasing pollution levels have undoubtedly impacted marine ecosystems. While the primary goal of these expeditions is to establish a baseline understanding of marine life, the presence of marine debris, even in the deepest parts of the ocean, is a stark reminder of human impact. 

Incorporating New Technologies

NOAA is at the forefront of incorporating novel technologies into ocean exploration. One such innovation is the development of soft grippers for ROVs. Unlike the traditional metal claw, these soft grippers can mold around an organism, ensuring safer and more efficient sample collection.

The Future of Ocean Exploration

The Pacific Ocean, with its vast and diverse ecosystems, is the next frontier for Copeland and her team. With plans to explore areas from California to Alaska and then moving to Hawaii and the Pacific remote islands, the team hopes to uncover more of the ocean’s secrets.

The world’s oceans, with their mysteries and wonders, offer endless opportunities for discovery. As Copeland aptly puts it, understanding the baseline of what exists is crucial for gauging changes and ensuring the preservation of these delicate ecosystems for future generations.

Merrill Charette

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