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by Walter Bonora and David L. Hall
National Marine Sanctuaries

Scientists, explorers and inventors continually strive to come up with better, faster and more efficient ways to expand our knowledge of the ocean environment and its components. Many of the latest ocean exploration and monitoring technologies are being put to use in national marine sanctuaries.

From "telepresence" technology to an intricate network of monitoring systems, sanctuaries are alive not only with marine life but also technology to improve understanding of these special places.

“Through the application of leading-edge technologies in national marine sanctuaries, we’re opening new windows onto the marine world and connecting the American people to it like never before,” says Daniel J. Basta, director of the NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Program. “Innovation and creativity will always have a home in national marine sanctuaries.”

This device, seen here on the seafloor in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, measures currents flowing over the top of Davidson Seamount. (Photo: MBARI/NOAA)

Researchers today have a selection of high-tech tools with which to peer into the depths, from sonar devices that produce pictures of the seafloor using sound waves to camera-equipped robot subs and planes.

“Remote-controlled submersibles, called ROVs, are particularly useful because researchers can dive down to a sunken object and investigate it visually,” says Steve Gittings, the sanctuary program’s science coordinator. “They allow us to see what it sees, all from the relative safety of a research vessel.”

But the trick, say researchers, is to use the right tool, or combination of tools, for the job.

“Working with our partners in both the private and public sector, we are always trying new and different remote-sensing technologies to get the best information possible about whatever it is we’re investigating, whether it’s a shipwreck or coral reef,” says Michael Overfield, a marine archaeologist with the sanctuary program. “It’s exciting when a new technology we’re trying reveals something that we couldn’t have seen with yesterday’s tools.”

It’s better still, he says, when a technology designed for one purpose, such as locating submerged mines or other weapons, is also useful for finding things like shipwrecks that are leaking oil.

During the upcoming field season, sanctuary program researchers plan to use ROVs, manned submersibles, sonar and other tools to explore the hidden regions deep off the California coast, investigate the wreck of a 1930s airship, assess the status of coral reefs in the Gulf of Mexico, and provide the American people with an unprecedented look at the wealth of natural and cultural resources that lie within national marine sanctuaries.

pilotless plane
NOAA is exploring the possibility of using unmanned aerial vehicles to observe sanctuary resources. Top: Advanced Ceramics Research's Siver Fox UAV (Photo: ACR). Above: General Atomics Aeronautical System's Altair UAV (Photo: NOAA)

Soon, researchers will be using small robot planes, called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), in the skies over national marine sanctuaries. Packed with cameras and other sensor equipment, UAVs can provide scientists and managers with “eyes in the sky” in places that are not easy to get to by other means. Amazingly, the UAV currently being tested in the airspace over Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, the Silver Fox, weighs only 20 pounds.

Often the greatest strides in science and exploration come from instruments that are smaller still. Take thermistors. As small as a matchbox, thermistors are tiny data recorders that are used to measure temperature changes.

Scientists from the sanctuary program and the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans recently installed several thermistors in California’s Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary to record sea temperatures and wave and depth variations throughout the water column. (Changes in water temperatures affect the growth rate of krill and plankton, a necessary food source for numerous types of fish and marine mammals.)

Further north, at Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, scientists deployed 10 oceanographic mooring systems outfitted with high-tech instruments to measure water quality and currents in an effort to improve understanding of nearshore circulation patterns and upwelling events.

Scientists are also using the instruments to study harmful algal blooms. Because these blooms can cause biotoxin levels to increase in numerous shellfish and marine wildlife species, scientists are concerned about human consumption of these species. Data gathered from the mooring instruments will be used to better forecast such events, and reduce closures of some shellfish operations to ensure human safety.

Of course, any major study of the ocean ultimately requires the use of a vessel. The sanctuary program will soon launch three state-of-the-art surface vessels that will raise research, education, monitoring and enforcement in sanctuaries to new levels.

“We need to maintain a presence on the water to effectively manage and protect our sanctuaries,” says Ted Lillestolen, the sanctuary program’s deputy director for facilities, vessels, aircraft and safety. “To do that we need efficient vessels.”

The new vessels will have the same hull design as the R/V Shearwater, a 62-foot aluminum catamaran built to support research and monitoring efforts on the West Coast. The vessel offers a stable platform ideal for deploying research equipment and bringing teachers and students on board.

This fall, Monterey Bay and Stellwagen Bank national marine sanctuaries will take delivery of new catamaran research vessels that will meet the sanctuaries’ need for fast, stable, all-weather craft. A new and faster enforcement vessel will soon ply the waters between Key West, Fla., and the Dry Tortugas, enabling officers to make runs to the Tortugas and stay aboard overnight if necessary.

“Whether we’re talking boats, subs, planes or thermistors,” says Basta, “we welcome and encourage our partners to come and test their best new technologies in national marine sanctuaries as we all work to shed new light on our ocean and Great Lakes treasures.”

Michael Overfield
National Marine Sanctuary Program marine archaelologist Michael Overfield uses state-of-the-art seafloor imaging equipment deployed with support from East Carolina University and the Office of Naval Research. (Photo: John F. Williams/ONR)

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