DEEP­WA­TER WON­DERS OF WAKE

Cruising World - - Underway - — Ann Hoffner

Iam a sail­ing scuba diver; one wall of my liv­ing room is painted deep “teal ocean” and hung with an en­larged photo of me div­ing — wear­ing a pink weight belt and pas­tel-col­ored reg­u­la­tor hoses — dur­ing a long cruis­ing stay on Oddly Enough, our Peter­son 44, at Kavieng in Pa­pua New Guinea. But I’d never sailed or dived at Wake Is­land, and I’d cer­tainly never gone down to 2,100 me­ters. This changed in Au­gust 2016, when I vir­tu­ally joined the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ship for ocean ex­plo­ration and re­search, Okeanos Ex­plorer, for an ex­pe­di­tion that filmed the deep ocean bot­tom around Wake from a re­motely op­er­ated ve­hi­cle (ROV). I joined it as a “cit­i­zen sci­en­tist,” watch­ing live on my com­puter screen.

The Cam­paign to Ad­dress Pa­cific Mon­u­ment Science, Tech­nol­ogy and Ocean Needs, or CAP­STONE, is a three-year mis­sion to ex­plore deep­wa­ter marine pro­tected ar­eas in the cen­tral and west­ern Pa­cific Ocean, ini­ti­ated by NOAA and its part­ners. Th­ese in­clude some of the last pris­tine marine ecosys­tems on the planet and har­bor nu­mer­ous pro­tected species. Al­most ev­ery dive finds pre­vi­ously uniden­ti­fied life-forms and un­der­wa­ter for­ma­tions such as mud vol­ca­noes and hy­dro­ther­mal vents. Wake Is­land’s wa­ters are also rich in ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites for ships and air­craft lost dur­ing World War II. Most deep­wa­ter ar­eas, though poorly stud­ied, are of high in­ter­est to fed­eral and state agen­cies be­cause of their po­ten­tial re­sources. It has a dark side, how­ever. Like con­tract ar­chae­ol­ogy, Okeanos sur­veys ar­eas ripe for re­source ex­trac­tion to see what would be de­stroyed. But CAP­STONE is also in­tended to gar­ner sup­port for pre­serv­ing what’s there, and for that, the big­ger the pub­lic pres­ence the bet­ter.

Ex­pe­di­tion cruise legs can take three weeks, with two sci­en­tists on board Okeanos — a ge­ol­ogy lead and a bi­ol­ogy lead — plus crews to run the ship and two ROVS: Deep Dis­cov­erer (D2), with a fab­u­lous video cam­era that films high-def­i­ni­tion close-ups of stuff I wouldn’t no­tice div­ing, and Seirios, which goes down on a sep­a­rate ca­ble and hov­ers above, film­ing D2 and the sur­round­ing ocean floor, which it lights up for per­haps the first time ever. Dive and map­ping op­er­a­tions are streamed live, so ev­ery day this past year from mid-july to Au­gust, at about 4:30 p.m. (8:30 a.m. Fiji time), I’d think about set­tling in to watch.

In the Okeanos dig­i­tal con­trol room, the sci­en­tists ob­serve and record the dive and the ROV crew op­er­ates its ve­hi­cles — in­clud­ing the me­chan­i­cal arm that col­lects sam­ples — guided by com­puter screens. Be­sides a livestream of what is seen and heard on the NOAA web­site, there is a large on­line chat room of sci­en­tists and oth­ers on voice call to help iden­tify the sea crea­tures and rock for­ma­tions. For all its se­ri­ous­ness, it’s also a show; each leg has dif­fer­ent science leads who set the tone, and their in­ter­per­sonal chem­istry shapes the time we spend to­gether. On the Wake Is­land leg, Chris Kel­ley and Jasper Kon­ter, both of the Univer­sity of Hawaii, are clas­sic science nerds. They love their cho­sen fields, they love aw­ful jokes (es­pe­cially about fish) and their laughter livens the In­ter­net.

Wake Is­land, 1,500 miles from Guam and 2,400 miles from Hawaii, was first dis­cov­ered by Euro­peans in 1568, when Span­ish ex­plorer Ál­varo de Men­daña de Neyra vis­ited the atoll. At 19° 16’ N, 166° 38’ E, it’s an oc­ca­sional stopover for cruis­ing sail­boats head­ing across the north­ern Pa­cific. A boat basin in­side the pass houses sup­port ves­sels for the U.S. Air Force, which runs the is­land. There is a nar­row reef shelf on the ocean side of the pass suit­able for sail­boat an­chor­ing, but overnight is gen­er­ally all that’s done.

The Wake Is­land voy­age ended af­ter div­ing and map­ping iso­lated seamounts on its track from Guam to Wake to Kwa­jalein in the Mar­shall Is­lands. In Septem­ber, Okeanos docked in Hawaii and off­loaded spec­i­mens of life and rock it col­lected over the year like Noah’s ark trav­el­ing the sea. Voy­ages in 2017 in­clude the How­land and Baker unit of the Pa­cific Re­mote Is­lands Marine Na­tional Mon­u­ment and the Phoenix Is­lands Pro­tected Area. If you’ve ever won­dered what might be lurk­ing be­low while cruis­ing the Pa­cific, join Okeanos at ocean­ex­plorer.noaa.gov/okeanos/wel­come .html for a peek at the mag­nif­i­cent deep un­der­wa­ter world.

A col­or­ful urchin climbs up the skele­ton of bam­boo co­ral (above). On a pre­vi­ous voy­age in the Gulf of Mex­ico, Deep Dis­cov­erer (top) found the rem­nants of an asphalt vol­cano.

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