NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer: 2021 Expeditions Overview

NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer: 2021 Expeditions Overview

April 2021 – September 2021

A Foreword on COVID-19 Considerations

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic, the ship will be operating with a limited number of personnel following strict COVID-19 mitigation protocols in accordance with CDC and NOAA health and safety guidance. As such, the safety of onboard personnel will be of top priority and some field operations will be more constrained than under normal operating conditions (e.g., sampling activities may be reduced and extended dives may not be possible).

Figure 1. Map showing the priority operations area (orange polygon) and ports (white dots) for expeditions aboard NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer that will be conducted in Fiscal Year 2021.

Figure 1. Map showing the priority operations area (orange polygon) and ports (white dots) for expeditions aboard NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer that will be conducted in Fiscal Year 2021. Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research. Download larger version (jpg, 4.0 MB).

From April through September 2021, the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (OER) will embark on NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer to conduct exploration work in the North Atlantic Ocean (Figure 1). A total of seven expeditions are planned, for a combined 134 days at sea. This work will occur following an intensive dry dock repair period in Pascagoula, Mississippi, that accomplished essential improvements to the vessel.

The early portion of the field season will be focused on reinstallation and testing of mission-critical science equipment following dry dock repairs, acceptance testing of a new state-of-the-art multibeam sonar system (Kongsberg EM 304), and reintegration and engineering tests of OER’s dual-body remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) Seirios and Deep Discoverer.

The geographic focus of exploration work in 2021 will encompass the Blake Plateau (U.S. waters) as well as the New England Seamounts and the Corner Rise Seamounts (international waters). These expeditions will contribute to the Atlantic Seafloor Partnership for Integrated Research and Exploration (ASPIRE) in support of the Galway Statement on Atlantic Ocean Cooperation .

NOAA is proud to partner with Canada and the European Union in support of the Galway Statement. The Galway Statement is an initiative between the United States, Canada, and the European Union to advance knowledge of the Atlantic leading to improved ocean stewardship and understanding. Field operations will target largely unknown or poorly understood areas and will be designed to build on previous efforts to help fill knowledge gaps.

Exploratory mapping work completed during the 2021 field season will directly support and implement the international Seabed 2030  initiative and the U.S. National Ocean Mapping, Exploration, and Characterization (NOMEC) Strategy . The Seabed 2030 project aims to bring together all available bathymetric data to produce the definitive map of the world ocean floor by 2030 and make it available to all. The NOMEC Strategy calls for complete mapping of U.S. waters deeper than 40 meters (131 feet) by 2030, exploring and characterizing priority areas of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone and developing and operationalizing emerging mapping and exploration technologies. The Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 expeditions on NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer have been planned to maximize contributions to these key initiatives in both U.S. and international waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.

In FY 2021, OER is also planning one expedition dedicated to advancing cutting-edge ocean exploration technologies in collaboration with the Ocean Exploration Cooperative Institute. This expedition will support testing of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s (WHOI) Orpheus autonomous underwater vehicles  (AUV). These full ocean depth capable vehicles are designed to advance our ability to explore the deepest trenches in the world (“hadal zone” areas deeper than 6,000 meters or 3.7 miles) using a relatively low-cost and modular unmanned vehicle solution. WHOI has been partnering with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory to implement terrain-relative navigation software on the Orpheus AUVs; this software stitches together images to navigate the seafloor. During the same expedition, OER will be piloting environmental DNA (eDNA) sampling protocols using the ship’s CTD rosette with plans for incorporation into future ROV operations. This expedition will also contribute new mapping data to previously unmapped areas of the Blake Plateau.

Southeast U.S.: Ship Shakedown, Technology Demonstration, and Blake Plateau Mapping

Figure 2. Map showing priority areas for exploratory mapping operations in 2021 on the Blake Plateau offshore of the southeast U.S. (colored polygons).

Figure 2. Map showing priority areas for exploratory mapping operations in 2021 on the Blake Plateau offshore of the southeast U.S. (colored polygons). Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research. Download larger version (jpg, 3.4 MB).

The Blake Plateau region offshore of the southeast United States has been an area of focused mapping and ROV exploration by OER and partners for the past several years. These explorations have documented the most extensive continuous cold-water coral mound reef ecosystem yet discovered in the world. OER’s objective this fiscal year is to continue mapping the remaining unmapped seafloor of the Blake Plateau, focusing on areas deeper than 400 meters (1,312 feet). Four expeditions in FY 2021 will be partially or wholly dedicated to the ongoing exploration work in this region.

The first expedition of FY 2021 will complete a comprehensive acceptance testing of the newly installed Kongsberg EM 304 multibeam sonar system. Okeanos Explorer is the first ship in the NOAA fleet to have an EM 304 multibeam installed. The Okeanos Explorer is also the first ship in the world to receive the newly improved EM 304 MKII transmit array. The new mapping system significantly improves upon the performance of the MKI model, boosting range from a previous maximum of 8,000 meters (5 miles) to full ocean depth and increasing swath performance by up to 75%. This upgrade of the ship’s multibeam sonar will enable wider swaths of the seafloor to be mapped by the ship and increase the efficiency of OER’s exploration mapping work. The testing work will be completed between the ports of Key West and Port Canaveral, Florida, and will include the mapping of deep regions adjacent to the Blake Plateau and Great Abaco Canyon in The Bahamas.

The second expedition of the fiscal year will include a complete shakedown (testing, troubleshooting, and calibration) of all ocean mapping systems. Once all mission systems are validated, sea time will be spent mapping previously unmapped regions of the Blake Plateau (Figure 2). This expedition will start and end in Port Canaveral, Florida.

The third expedition of FY 2021 will be the technology demonstration expedition, with the primary goals of completing field engineering trials of WHOI’s Orpheus AUVs  and refining environmental DNA (eDNA) field sampling protocols on Okeanos Explorer. Night operations will be focused on mapping previously unmapped priority areas (Figure 2). This expedition will depart from Port Canaveral and arrive in Norfolk, Virginia.

Following the completion of the technology demonstration expedition, the ship will transit northward to conduct an ROV shakedown and a seamount exploration expedition (described further in the next section), but will return for two exploration expeditions aimed at finishing mapping of the deepwater portions of the Blake Plateau (priority areas shown in Figure 2). These areas will be explored in partnership with experts from other U.S. federal agencies such as the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), as well as industry and academic partners.

Planned expedition dates and activities include:

  • April 14 – May 8, 2021: 2021 Mapping Shakedown and U.S. Blake Plateau Mapping
    Starting in Key West, Florida, and ending in Port Canaveral, Florida
  • May 8, 2021: EM 304 System Acceptance Testing
    Starting and ending in Port Canaveral, Florida
  • May 12 – May 25, 2021: 2021 Technology Demonstration
    Starting in Port Canaveral, Florida and ending in Norfolk, Virginia
  • June 11 – June 25, 2021: 2021 ROV Shakedown
    Starting in Norfolk, Virginia and ending in Newport, Rhode Island
  • June 29 – July 28, 2021: 2021 North Atlantic Stepping Stones: New England and Corner Rise Seamounts
    Starting and ending in Newport, Rhode Island
  • August 14 – September 1, 2021: 2021 U.S. Blake Plateau Mapping
    Starting in Newport, Rhode Island, and ending in Port Canaveral, Florida
  • September 5 – September 30, 2021: 2021 U.S. Blake Plateau Mapping
    Starting and ending in Port Canaveral, Florida

ROV Shakedown and New England and Corner Rise Seamounts

Figure 2. Map showing priority areas for exploratory mapping operations in 2021 on the Blake Plateau offshore of the southeast U.S. (colored polygons).

Figure 3. Map showing the operations area (orange polygon) and approximate expedition track lines for the ROV shakedown expedition (black line) and the 2021 North Atlantic Stepping Stones: New England and Corner Rise Seamounts expedition (yellow line). Exploratory mapping and ROV work will focus on the New England Seamounts and Corner Rise Seamounts offshore of the eastern United States. Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research. Download larger version (jpg, 3.5 MB).

OER will conduct an ROV shakedown expedition to fully reintegrate the dual-body ROVs Seirios and Deep Discoverer. This expedition will include engineering test dives in water depths up to approximately 5,000 meters (3.1 miles). Dives will be conducted during the daylight hours, and night mapping operations will be conducted during transit northward towards port in Rhode Island.

For the month of July, OER will lead a 30-day ROV and mapping expedition on Okeanos Explorer to explore the New England Seamounts and the Corner Rise Seamounts in international waters of the North Atlantic (Figure 3). The expedition expands on previous OER explorations of the New England Seamounts conducted in 2013 and 2014. The 2021 expedition will include daytime ROV dives on the remote seamount features, overnight mapping operations, and continuous shore-side participation via telepresence technology. This expedition will contribute directly to the science objectives of the Atlantic Seafloor Partnership for Integrated Research and Exploration (ASPIRE) and the Galway Statement on Atlantic Ocean Cooperation .

Planned expedition dates and activities include:

  • June 11 – June 25, 2021: 2021 ROV Shakedown
    Starting in Norfolk, Virginia, and ending in Newport, Rhode Island
  • June 29 – July 28, 2021: 2021 North Atlantic Stepping Stones: New England and Corner Rise Seamounts
    Starting and ending in Newport

Participating in the Expeditions

Throughout the year, telepresence technology will allow you to follow discoveries via the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research website, putting the unexplored ocean in front of your eyes. NOAA is currently seeking scientists and managers interested in actively participating during 2021 expeditions. For details on opportunities to get involved, please visit this page. If you are interested in providing input into expedition planning or participating as a scientist or student, please contact the Expeditions Science Advisor, Dr. Scott France, at france@louisiana.edu.

Data Access

OER ensures public access to the diverse scientific data and information collected during OER-supported ocean expeditions, including those on NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer. Data collections typically include oceanographic and geophysical parameters, video, images, documents, and other information, provided in a range of data formats. Click here for more information on data access.