NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer wraps up Alaska expedition

a remotely operated vehicle
A remotely operated vehicle aboard NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer. (Hunter Morrison/KDLL)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s vessel Okeanos Explorer is docked in Seward after finishing a five-month research expedition of maritime Alaska. On Tuesday, reporters had a chance to tour the ship.

The tour included a look at the ship’s science control room, bridge, and remotely operated vehicles. Sam Candio, an expedition coordinator for NOAA Ocean Exploration, spoke of specimens collected during the Alaska expedition, including a previously unknown species of coral and a sea star that may fall under a new genus.

“I think the natural beauty and the wildness on land is pretty well understood,” Candio said. “A lot of people, that’s the first thought when you think of Alaska; it’s the Last Frontier, right? But in doing things like this and being able to explore a little bit deeper, literally, we saw that that wildness and that diversity extends to the deep sea as well.”

The expedition surveyed maritime regions throughout the state, including the Gulf of Alaska, the Aleutian Trench, and the Kodiak-Bowie Seamount chain.

During the expedition, the vessel mapped over 187,000 square kilometers of Alaska’s ocean floor, roughly the size of Washington state. It included 26 remote operated vehicle dives, identifying new lifeforms as well as new geological histories of Alaska’s oceans. The crew also spent a day surveying the wreck of the Prinsendam, a luxury liner that sank 120 miles south of Yakutat in 1980.

All ROV missions aboard the Okeanos Explorer are streamed online, meaning that people from across the world can watch them in real time. Scientists are able to call in live to ask the crew to zoom in on a finding or take a specimen. The ROVs are equipped with high-definition cameras and state-of-the-art lighting systems.

a specimen
A mysterious orb specimen found on the Okeanos Explorer’s Alaska expedition. (Hunter Morrison/KDLL)

One specimen researchers collected in the Gulf of Alaska was an unidentifiable golden orb, which caught the attention of the media last week. The orb was on view for ship visitors today, alongside other specimens collected on the expedition. The mysterious orb will be sent to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. to be studied.

“I have heard every type of speculation in the book,” Candio said. “I think some of the most likely things I’ve heard are eggcase, sponge, maybe a coral. It’s really hard with some deep-sea things because you’ll have different groups that have similar characteristics.”

Despite rough waters and inclement weather, Candio says that the Okeanos Explorer’s Alaska expedition was one of the most biologically and geologically diverse missions he’s ever been a part of. He hopes that explorations like these capture the imagination of scientists and everyday people alike.

“It gives us a certain latitude to try things, to go out and explore,” Candio said. “The ability to go out and explore is super important because it allows for further exploration down the line.”

The Okeanos Explorer’s next expedition will focus on the waters of the Pacific islands.

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