Grants Allow Viewers to Explore Our Unknown Ocean Virtually

By Claire Cutler

August 2023

The five-minute video opens with choruses of “Whoa!” and “No way.” as researchers first sight the whale fall. “That is phenomenal,” one remarks. As the video procedes, the scientists count 15 octopuses surrounding the whale fall. Their excitement about the discovery is evident. As the researchers steer their remotely operated vehicle (ROV) away, they bid farewell to the octopus, with one saying, “Goodbye octopus. We’ll come back, don’t worry.” The scientists weren’t the only ones excited about this discovery; the video of their ROV feed now has over 1.6 million views on YouTube.

Many octopuses surround a whale carcass laying on the seafloor.
Octopuses surround a whale fall, as viewed from an OET ROV during a 2019 dive. Photo: Ocean Exploration Trust/NOAA.

Over the last few years, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries awarded $10.5 million to three organizations for deep-sea exploration and research and to enable viewers across the globe to explore wonders of the deep ocean virtually. Despite interruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic, each organization created opportunities for students, teachers, and families to explore shipwrecks, coral reefs, a remarkably intact whale fall, an octopus garden, and more.

Collectively, the projects reached over 3.3 million viewers on live streams, engaged over 96,000 participants in ship-to-shore interactions, and explored 12 national marine sanctuaries and marine national monuments. Over the course of 110 remotely operated dives, seven shipwrecks were explored and documented, and 70,695 square miles of seafloor were mapped. Over 2,500 students across the nation engaged with the projects in classrooms, at sea, and from home.

Ocean Exploration Trust, Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute received funding to explore and document deep-sea oceanography, marine habitats, cultural sites, and living and nonliving resources. The successes of these projects were numerous, with some particularly impactful discoveries that allowed the public to experience remarkable undersea phenomena.

Telepresence Highlights

While mapping the seafloor, researchers from NOAA, the state of Michigan, and Ocean Exploration Trust discovered the lost shipwreck Ironton in Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The research team used sonar to locate the shipwreck, which rests upright with its three masts still standing. They then used an undersea robot (remotely operated vehicle or ROV) to confirm the ship’s identity through video images. Captivating the public, this discovery made headlines across the globe on the day it was released.

A wooden ship rests upright on the seafloor in blue waters. The forward mast is standing
                            upright, and cleats, rigging, and ropes are all visible.
The Ironton shipwreck rests hundreds of feet below the surface of Lake Huron. Photo: NOAA/UNCW Undersea Vehicles Program

In 2019, researchers discovered a whale fall in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Discovering a dead whale on the seafloor is a big deal for marine scientists because this mass of meat creates a food source for crabs, sharks, worms, and more. A single whale fall can support a community of organisms for 50 to 75 years. The research team returned one year later to assess the condition of the whale, and discovered it had changed significantly, with all of its soft tissue gone. The whale fall was identified as a common (or northern) minke whale. A natural whale fall is a rare sight, and marine scientists have few opportunities to study whales that have died and naturally sunk in the open ocean such as this one. The intact condition of the specimen upon first discovery, perhaps due to its location more than 10,000 feet underwater, gave scientists an unparalleled opportunity to see the progression of a whale fall.

A side by side comparison of a whale carcass on the seafloor showing 2019 versus 2020. The
                            2019 image has many larger scavengers such as octopus, while the 2020 image shows the carcass more
This whale fall was discovered by scientists from Ocean Exploration Trust in 2019 and photographed one year later in 2020. Photo: Ocean Exploration Trust/NOAA

During an expedition in 2022, Ocean Exploration Trust explorers led live ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i (Hawaiian language) ship-to-shore interactions and created multiple learning resources to celebrate and promote use of ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i in science. Through colorfully illustrated educational vocabulary guides, profiles of Native Hawaiian scientists, and dives narrated in ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i, Ocean Exploration Trust allowed Native Hawaiian students to see themselves in marine science. Developed in collaboration with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, these culturally relevant programs brought Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument to life for students across Hawaiʻi.

people wearing headsets and looking at data on computer screens from the control room of a
                            research vessel
Explorers from Ocean Exploration Trust, with support from the Papahānaumokuākea Native Hawaiian Cultural Working Group, led ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i (Hawaiian language) educational programs for students in Hawaiʻi and across the Pacific. Photo: Ocean Exploration Trust/NOAA


Claire Cutler is an intern with NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.