About NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer

R/V Cape Fear exit icon

NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer berthed at the NOAA Ford Island facility located in the middle of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Image courtesy of NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research. Click image for high-resolution download.

NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer, “America’s Ship for Ocean Exploration,” is the only federally funded U.S. ship assigned to systematically explore our largely unknown ocean for the purpose of discovery and the advancement of knowledge. Telepresence, using real-time broadband satellite communications, connects the ship and its discoveries live with audiences ashore. Visit the NOAA Marine Operations Center Okeanos Explorer External Link page for operations and crew information.

Since the ship was commissioned on August 13, 2008, the Okeanos Explorer has traveled the globe, exploring the Indonesian ‘Coral Triangle Region;’ benthic environments in the Galápagos; the geology, marine life, and hydrothermal systems of the Mid-Cayman Rise within the Caribbean Sea; and deep-sea habitats and marine life in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Mapping activities along the West and Mid-Atlantic Coasts have furthered our knowledge of these previously unexplored areas, setting the stage for future in-depth exploration activities.

Be sure to follow all of the ship's explorations.

The supplement to the March 2012 issue of Oceanography exit icon External Link was dedicated to the continuing expeditions of NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer and the Exploration Vessel (E/V) Nautilus. The mission of these two ships is to explore the most unknown areas of the world's ocean, while engaging the interest of scientists, educators, students, and the general public in undersea exploration and discovery through active participation in real time.

In this 2012 issue of Current, the Journal of Marine Education, the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer “comes alive,” capturing the enthusiasm of the ship’s officers, crew, and explorers as they live and work onboard the nation’s first dedicated ship for ocean exploration. The combination of personnel and instrumentation on a single vessel dedicated to ocean exploration is unique and is presented here as a “case study” for educators and students wishing to know more about the paths traveled by some of the individuals who dedicate their lives to understanding more about our little-known ocean world.


NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer Sand Point, WA facility Google Map.

The Okeanos Explorer conducted one of the longest-known plankton transect for NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service during the 2010 transit from hawaii to the West Coast. Scientists also created a multibeam map of the seafloor, along the way exploring the “Sticks”.

Click image for Google Map.

Ship Specifications

Name: Okeanos Explorer, from the Greek "Okeanos," for ocean

History: Former Naval surveillance T-AGOS Class Ship Capable

Length: 224 feet
Breadth: 43 feet
Draft: 15 feet
Displacement: 2,298.3 metric tons

Berthing: 46, including crew and mission support

Mission: Mapping, site characterization, reconnaissance, and education and outreach.

Telepresence: Live images from seafloor to scientists ashore, and to classrooms, newsrooms, and living rooms. Telepresence was developed with the support of Dr. Robert Ballard and the Inner Space Center at the University of Rhode Island.

ROVs (remotely operated vehicles): Two vehicles attached by a tether, capable of operating to depths of 6,000 meters.

Dynamic Positioning (DP): Automatic pilot for ships, keeping the ship in place while operating ROVs.

Mapping: Hull-mounted, first-of-its-kind multibeam sonar for high-resolution maps of the seafloor as deep as 6,000 meters.

Staff: Ship operated by the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps and civilians as part of NOAA's fleet managed by NOAA's Office of Marine and Aviation. Mission equipment operated by NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration and Research.

Commissioned: August 13, 2008, in Seattle, Washington

Bullet Okeanos Explorer's Specs
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Bullet Okeanos Explorer's Diagram (pdf, 1.64 MB)

Why Explore? The ocean is 95 percent unexplored, unknown, and unseen by human eyes. Resource managers cannot manage what they do not know. To understand, manage, and protect the ocean and its resources, NOAA believes it is critical to support a systematic program of ocean exploration, using the best of ocean technology to explore, discover, inform, educate, and motivate. Exploration of our largely unknown ocean supports key NOAA, national, and international goals related to a better understanding of the ocean that will benefit current and future generations. NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer is helping us to better understand the unknown ocean.

Unlike many other ocean expeditions supported by NOAA, most of the scientists participating in Okeanos Explorer missions remain on shore. Via telepresence, live images from the seafloor and other science data flow over satellite and high-speed Internet pathways to scientists standing watches at a series of Exploration Command Centers ashore...or at the comfort of their own desks. These scientists, and others on call if a discovery is made at sea, add their expertise to missions no matter where in the world the ship is located.

This telepresence-enabled ship also streams seafloor images and interviews from sea over standard Internet connections, bringing the excitement of ocean exploration and discoveries live into classrooms, newsrooms, and living rooms, helping to raise ocean literacy among stakeholders, increasing their ability to make informed decisions about important ocean issues. The use of telepresence for exploring the ocean was pioneered by Dr. Robert Ballard and his Institute for Exploration.

Missions of the ship include mapping, site characterization, reconnaissance, education, and outreach. Reconnaissance is searching an unknown area for an interesting anomaly and stopping the ship to investigate in greater detail, using all ship systems to focus on a specific target with high discovery potential. Additionally, the ship conducts regular water column exploration to improve characterizations of water mass properties at sites both when searching for anomalies and when transiting through poorly known deep water areas.

Okeanos Explorer is a hypotheses-generating ship, a ship of discovery. Following a discovery, or detection of a high-interest anomaly, the ship may stop and deploy remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and other sensors and systems. Together with shore-based exploration teams, scientists and technicians at sea may conduct preliminary site investigations, developing enough data to provide an energized user community with justification for follow-on, hypotheses-based investigations, before the ship moves on to explore more of the unknown ocean. In this way, Okeanos Explorer is also a path-finding ship, creating a wake of discovery data for other scientists on other ships to conduct subsequent and more detailed investigations.

The ship comes with a variety of sensors and systems, including a modern hull-mounted multibeam sonar for generating high-resolution maps of the seafloor as deep as 6,000 meters. These maps help explorers identify interesting features that warrant further investigation, and can serve as guides for conducting visual surveys using ROVs.

Okeanos has ROVs, attached by a tether and capable of operating to depths of 6,000 meters. One ROV is suspended above the other and serves to illuminate and image the surroundings. Suspended below this is the primary ROV, equipped with two high-definition cameras, sensors to collect environmental data, and a powerful lighting system. The ROV has a unique lighting design with LED lights located on four swing arms that allow for the position and angle of the light to be adjusted for optimal imaging. The ROV is also outfitted with two manipulator arms but currently does not collect physical samples pending completion of an open access sampling protocol.

Okeanos Explorer uses its dynamic positioning (DP) system, a sort of automatic pilot that integrates satellite positioning data with the ship’s engines and thrusters, to remain on station when ROVs are deployed.

An imposing feature on the ship is the large satellite dome, part of the high-bandwidth satellite communications system that allows explorers ashore to participate in the expedition. The satellite telemetry system is designed to provide data at rates up to 21 Mb/s (megabytes per second) from the ship to the shore and up to 4 Mb/s from shore back to the ship. This capability is required to support full transmission of the high-definition video from both the ROVs and from auxiliary cameras on the ship.

Exploration Command Centers ashore include the “Inner Space Center” at the University of Rhode Island; the Joint Hydrography Center at the University of New Hampshire; NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Lab in Seattle, Washington; NOAA’s Science Center in Silver Spring, Maryland; the National Coastal Data Development Center at the Stennis Space Center in Stennis, Mississippi; and the Cooperative Institute for Ocean Exploration Research and Technology at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce, Florida.

The ocean exploration ship was camera icon converted from the former Naval surveillance T-AGOS class ship Capable. Okeanos Explorer is 224 feet in length with a beam of 43 feet and a draft of 15 feet. The ship can embark 46, including crewmembers and those assigned to mission support.

Okeanos Explorer is operated by officers in NOAA’s Commissioned Officer Corps External Link and by civilians as part of NOAA’s fleet, managed by NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations (OMAO) External Link. Exploration mission equipment is operated by NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (OER) External Link.