A Winning Combination: BOEM and NOAA Partner on Ocean Science with the Okeanos Explorer

 BOEM Environmental Studies Chief Rodney Cluck (r) describes some of the collaborative science that has taken place aboard the Okeanos Explorer with NOAA and other partners.BOEM ActingDirector Walter Cruickshank (l) and Chief Environmental Officer Bill Brown (c) joined the tour.
BOEM Environmental Studies Chief Rodney Cluck (r)
describes some of the collaborative science that has
taken place aboard the Okeanos Explorer with NOAA
and other partners.BOEM ActingDirector Walter
Cruickshank (l) and Chief Environmental Officer
Bill Brown (c) joined the tour.

09-29-2014

This month, BOEM officials had the opportunity to tour the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Ship Okeanos Explorer while it was docked at the Port of Baltimore. The ship is one of the premier U.S. ocean research vessels, and it has been used three times as a platform for research supported by BOEM’s Environmental Studies Program and incorporated into its environmental assessment activities.

Commissioned by NOAA in August 2008, the Okeanos Explorer is “America’s Ship for Ocean Exploration,” and is the only federally funded U.S. ship assigned to systematically explore the largely unknown ocean for the purpose of discovery and advancement of knowledge.

Through BOEM’s partnership with NOAA, including joint studies with their Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, which owns and manages the Okeanos Explorer, researchers have gathered scientific data to expand understanding of the deep waters and marine life of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. The discoveries help to inform and shape BOEM management decisions regarding offshore energy and marine mineral development.

Several impressive Okeanos Explorer expeditions related to BOEM’s mission involved exploration of the Monterrey wreck, an early 19th century shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico. Shell Oil Company found its remains while using side scan sonar near one of its lease areas and notified BOEM about the probable shipwreck. BOEM is required under the National Historic Preservation Act to take steps that contribute to the preservation of sunken historic and archaeological properties.

 The copper-sheathed hull on one of the Monterrey wrecks serves as protection against marine-boring organisms in the wood beneath the waterline. The copper has turned green due to oxidation and chemical processes over more than a century on the seafloor. Oxidized copper sheathing and possible draft marks are visible on the bow of the ship. Credit: NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program
The copper-sheathed hull on one of the Monterrey
wrecks serves as protection against marine-boring
organisms in the wood beneath the waterline.
The copper has turned green due to oxidation and
chemical processes over more than a century on the
seafloor. Oxidized copper sheathing and possible draft
marks are visible on the bow of the ship.
Credit: NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program

With the information provided by Shell, a diverse team of researchers scheduled the first close-up reconnaissance expedition to the Monterrey wreck in April 2012 aboard the Okeanos Explorer. BOEM marine archaeologist Jack Irion helped to direct the mission remotely from land, interacting with the crew and other scientists by using telepresence between the ship and the Exploration Command Center at the Stennis Space Center. The goal of the research mission was to learn more about the ship’s age, origin, purpose, and possibly the people who may have been aboard. They successfully located the copper sheathing of the bow and numerous artifacts, including an anchor, artillery, muskets, a stove, and bottles. The discovery is considered to be one of the more significant shipwrecks ever discovered in the Gulf of Mexico.

In 2014, BOEM participated remotely in another research cruise to the same shipwreck, with the additional support of BOEM marine archaeologist Alicia Caporaso, BOEM geologist Kody Kramer, BOEM geophysicist Bill Shedd and scientists from other institutions.

Kody's blog post on the April 2014 Okeanos Explorer mission described a “fantastic amphitheater of chemosynthetic life” – a formation where mussels hung upside down and off the ledge near methane hydrates or ice, and where ice worms, sea urchins, sea stars and fish all lived. “It’s a wonderful feeling when the research we do in the office is verified out in the field,” he said. Senior geophysicist Bill Shedd answered questions remotely based on his knowledge of the hydrates and brine pools. 

 A lithodid crab seen on the mussel bed at 1,600 meters. Image courtesy of Deepwater Canyons 2013 - Pathways to the Abyss, NOAA-OER/BOEM/USGS
A lithodid crab seen on the mussel bed at 1,600
meters. Image courtesy of Deepwater Canyons 2013 -
Pathways to the Abyss, NOAA-OER/BOEM/USGS

On the Atlantic, the Okeanos Explorer has conducted mapping expeditions of deepwater canyons in the northeast, which complement BOEM’s mid-Atlantic deepwater canyons research. For example, a November 2012 seafloor survey by the Okeanos Explorer “found telltale bubbles rising from the depths, which suggested there was a methane seep ecosystem waiting to be found.” To explore further, the NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown returned to the Norfolk Canyon in May 2013 and identified a rare methane seep ecosystem nearly one mile beneath the ocean surface. It is perhaps the world’s largest methane cold seep, according to scientists on the mission. The new seep discovery was only the third documented seep site on the U.S. Atlantic Coast, and by far the most extensive. Chemosynthetic communities such as mussels and tube worms use chemical energy from chemicals instead of light energy to produce food, and the methane seeps provide that energy.

The purpose of BOEM’s Atlantic Canyons study is to expand the bureau’s knowledge of the distribution and sensitivity of unique biological habitats in deep water, as well as potential archaeological sites that may warrant protection. While BOEM has no oil and gas lease sales scheduled in the Atlantic for the 2012-2017 program, the research will provide updated environmental and ecological information to inform future decisions and mitigation measures.

 A fantastic “amphitheater of chemosynthetic life.” Image courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, Gulf of Mexico 2014 Expedition
A fantastic “amphitheater of chemosynthetic life.”
Image courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program,
Gulf of Mexico 2014 Expedition

BOEM participated in the Atlantic Canyons mission through its partnership with NOAA and the U.S. Geological Survey under the National Oceanographic Partnership Program. This collaboration, which involves federal agencies, academia, private industry, and non-governmental organizations, not only maximizes use of resources but also contributes to a growing body of knowledge about the oceans for all to access.

To learn more about the full range of BOEM’s Environmental Studies Program, established in 1973, visit http://www.boem.gov/Studies/, and follow us on Facebookand Twitter.