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Home > Research & Collections > News > Aboard R/V Nautilus

Aboard R/V Nautilus

The research vessel that never sleeps

The crew of E/V Nautlist launch the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Hercules. Photo by Dean Pentcheff


On Exploration Vehicle Nautilus, operations go on around the clock. So when I say that I’m in “Day 3” of my tour on board, it might as well be “Night 3.”

I’m here as a guest scientist, part of a collaboration between NHMLA’s DISCO (“Diversity Initiative for the Southern California Ocean”) project and Robert Ballard’s “Ocean Exploration Trust”, which runs E/V Nautilus.

I joined this leg of their cruise through the Channel Islands, out of Santa Barbara. It’s a chance to see how they operate, how they collect and process biological samples, and explore how we might work more closely in the future.

Exploration on board is managed in four-hour shifts, around the clock, based in the upper-deck control trailer. Inside the trailer, it’s always dark, allowing the best view of the multitude of screens showing the video and instrument feeds. Those come from the remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) “Argus” and “Hercules,” tethered to the E/V Nautilus, prowling the ocean floor anywhere from tens of meters to 4,000 meters below the surface. Along with multiple channels of high definition video, ROV Hercules also has manipulators and other equipment for taking physical samples of biological or geological specimens.

We’ve been cruising between several of the Channel Islands, with a primary goal of geological exploration of submerged terraces — remnants of shorelines from times over the last 10–20 thousand years when the sea level was much lower than it is today.

a photo of the deck of the exploration vessel nautillus at night. the lights of a remotely operated vehicle illuminate the ocean water
Remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Argus illuminates the ocean water.

Each time the ROVs are launched or retrieved, each multi-thousand pound vehicle must be hauled on or off the ship. Night launches are surreally beautiful. The bright lights on the work deck are the only illumination visible across the broad, rolling swells. One by one, the extraordinarily competent staff, a beautiful mixture of veteran marine techs and young recruits, gathers at the back deck. Winch and crane operators at the ready, Hercules is first lifted by crane and gently laid into the water, headlights casting a crystalline blue glow in the water. Herc now drifts back, a glowing pool of blue in the dark, until its tether is straight out. Now Argus is lifted over the back by the A-frame, positioned hands-on by the crew. Once Argus is down over the fantail, the twinned ROVs are considered launched, and the big cable winch on deck starts unreeling to let the descent begin.

Ironically, since I’ve been on board, most dives have been in areas where this expedition doesn’t have collecting permits, so I’ve spent much of my time augmenting the running commentary used by scientists and the viewing public to interpret what the video is showing.

But along the way, we’ve certainly run across extraordinary marine life (or “bio”, as the geologists on board dismiss it). Stumbling across a whale fall a couple of days ago was a highlight. Traversing the Santa Cruz Basin, crossing a largely featureless sandy plain, the headlights of the ROVs picked out a light-colored structure in the distance. Redirecting and approaching revealed the remarkably intact skeleton of a whale, well on its way to complete decomposition.

We spent half an hour or so prowling the scene, peeking in at the beautifully exposed bones, watching crabs crawling about, and eyeing the beautifully-spaced anemones lining the edge of the skull. Then it was time to lift off and move on to explore more of Southern California’s ocean.

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