By Sandy K. Johnson
The Western Flyer roams the ocean from Canada to Hawaii to the Sea of Cortez, exploring Pacific surface waters to the sea floor. The ship is just one vessel in the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute’s fleet of research ships and high-tech robotic vehicles.
National Press Foundation fellows were invited aboard the Western Flyer, where pilot Knute Brekke described how its remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) works. Each day at sea, the ROV lowers from the mother ship, up to a depth of 4,000 meters for 12 hours – using robotic arms and up to 15 cameras to capture samples and video for later analysis. It is today’s version of a Jacques Cousteau voyage.
Other examples of MBARI research:
• MBARI has collected 26,000 hours of underwater video over 30 years and analyzed it into 6.5 million observations stored in a database, according to senior research technician Susan von Thun. Much of the information is publicly available in MBARI’s Deep-Sea Guide and on its YouTube channel.
• Great white sharks will be “tagged” with small cameras that weigh less than 1.5 pounds. Mechanical engineer Larry Bird described how a camera will be manually attached to each shark and ultimately record eight to 10 hours of video. The camera is triggered by a timer over eight months, then retrieved for analysis. The video helps researchers understand the behavior of the great whites; for example, scientists still don’t understand why these sharks migrate to a remote area of the Pacific Ocean each year.
• MBARI studies deep sea coral reefs, which are the ecosystems that an estimated one-fourth of all ocean species depend upon for food and shelter. Recent research has focused on Sur Ridge coral reefs, about 35 miles off the Monterey Coast. Jim Barry, senior scientist and research chair, called the coral reefs “the equivalent of old growth forests.” Between 20 and 40 percent of coral reefs have been lost to bleaching from climate change.
• It’s not easy to silence a roomful of journalists, but the loudly vibrating sounds of whale calls did just that. Senior research specialist John Ryan described the wealth of sounds gathered from a microphone attached to a cable that runs under Monterey Bay. (Check out MBARI’s listening room.) Sound is important because 99 percent of the ocean goes dark beneath the surface, and underwater noise helps scientists understand marine life patterns as well as the influence of outside influences like ships. “Just by listening, we can learn a lot about their lives,” Ryan said.