Real-Time Public Engagement in Deep-Water Remotely Operated Vehicle Dives at Methane Seeps

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Outreach activities were a critical component of the remotely operated vehicle research cruise during which USGS scientists teamed with collaborators to explore the seafloor at methane seeps on the U.S. Mid-Atlantic margin aboard the R/V Hugh R. Sharp

This article is part of the May 2017 issue of the Sound Waves newsletter.

From May 3 to May 11, 2017, USGS scientists teamed with collaborators from the British Geological Survey and with a team of remotely operated vehicle (ROV) experts from Oceaneering, Inc., to explore the seafloor at methane seeps on the U.S. Mid-Atlantic margin aboard the R/V Hugh R. Sharp. Outreach activities were a critical component of the research cruise, which was funded by the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, with additional support from the USGS, the British Geological Survey, and the U.S. Department of Energy. The NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research has long emphasized the use of telepresence, which features two-way audio between the ship and shore and high-resolution video feeds from the ROV to shore. Telepresence enables shore-based scientists to participate in guiding and interpreting ROV seafloor explorations and features in real time and allows cruises to sail with only a small scientific staff. Telepresence also gives the public access to the thrill of discovery-based research bolstered by simultaneous expert explanations from the scientific community.

A white whale skull covered by tiny brown crabs lies on the seafloor

Seafloor image of the skull of a baleen whale covered with crabs picking away at the remaining flesh, discovered by the Global Explorer ROV at a water depth of ~3,300 feet (1,000 meters). Original image acquired by Oceaneering, Inc. (Courtesy of Oceaneering, Inc.)

For the recent USGS-led IMMeRSS (Interagency Mission on Methane Research at Seafloor Seeps), real-time video streaming was provided from the Global Explorer ROV operating at the seafloor and reached the shore over a dedicated satellite link. NOAA hosted a low-resolution stream of the IMMeRSS video, and the USGS supplemented the video feed with social-media postings on official Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts since real-time audio was not available. Managers in Reston, Virginia, and a cross-section of scientists and administrative staff at the USGS Coastal and Marine Geology Program field centers were engaged in watching the live video stream and communicating with shipboard scientists about the findings.

Three scientists stand on deck on a research vessel at sea; 2 hold a thick yellow cable

Co-Chief Scientist Amanda Demopoulos handles the tether on the ROV with her lab manager, Jennifer McClain Counts, on the fantail of the R/V Hugh R. Sharp, with an employee of Oceaneering, Inc. (L. J. Girard) looking on. (Credit: Andrea Toran, USGS. Oceaneering, Inc.)

In addition to providing scientific context for the dives and photographs of post-dive laboratory analyses, the Facebook format allowed Andrea Toran, the cruise outreach specialist from the USGS Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center, to develop human-interest postings on life at sea, the ship’s crew, and the scientific party. In the lead up to Mother’s Day, a focus was women in science and the number of women in leadership and other roles in the scientific party. Chief Scientist was geophysicist Carolyn Ruppel from the Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center, backed by Co-Chief Scientist and benthic ecologist Amanda Demopoulos from the USGS Wetland and Aquatic Research Center in Gainesville, Florida. Oceanographer Nancy Prouty from the USGS Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center was a co-investigator, as were Diana Sahy and Daniel Condon from the British Geological Survey. In addition, the Wetland and Aquatic Research Center group included biologist Jill Bourque and lab manager Jennifer McClain Counts. Other Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center participants were Chuck Worley, Eric Moore, and Wayne Baldwin, who collaborated with Ruppel on acquisition of geophysical data to support the choice of ROV dive sites. Half of the scientific party and most of the women had children 12 or younger at home. In some cases, these children were avid followers of the live video stream. On the ship, their parents decorated commemorative Styrofoam cups that were attached to the outside of the ROV and then shrunk by the pressures at great water depths during the dives.

Collage of a red octopus, left; a long white animal with red dots, center; and a fat brown fish, right.

Images of an octopus (Graneledone verrucosa), a salp chain, and a pallid sculpin (Cottunculus thomsoni), which is related to the blob fish, from the IMMeRSS expedition video stream. Image editing credit: Andrea Toran. (Video stream courtesy of Oceaneering, Inc.)

Two green laser lights shine on the wall, under a rock overhang at the seafloor

Gas hydrate (white, ice-like material) imaged beneath a rock overhang at the seafloor at ~3,300 feet (1,000 meters) water depth offshore from Virginia. The material hanging down from the hydrate is of unknown biological origin. Lasers are separated by 3.93 inches (10 centimeters). (Courtesy of Oceaneering, Inc.)

In addition to the more than 22,000 real-time video viewers that the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research recorded watching the IMMeRSS sites during the first few Global Explorer dives, the Coastal and Marine Geology Facebook page experienced a cruise-related spike of more than 2,000% in metrics that track the engagement and reach of Facebook posts. The IMMeRSS Mid-Atlantic margin expedition demonstrated the impact of real-time video streaming for ROV cruises on smaller vessels like the R/V Hugh R. Sharp and outside the framework of the dedicated NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research outreach effort. The combination of social media to convey contextual information and live video streaming to convey the immediacy of the seafloor discoveries was an inexpensive, yet efficient, way to meet outreach goals associated with the expedition. 

 

Photo of a styrofoam cup between 2 cups shrunken during an ROV dive

Styrofoam cups with the USGS logo shrunken by a ROV dive to 4,760 feet (1,450 meters) water depth flank a normal full-sized cup. (Credit: Andrea Toran, USGS. Public domain.)