Sanctuaries Live expeditions offer video and communication feeds from underwater

Last year, an autonomous surface vehicle named “BEN” plied the waters of Lake Huron, creating a detailed map of the seafloor in Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Ninety-nine shipwrecks have been discovered in the sanctuary, and researchers estimate that as many more may remain uncharted. No humans were on board the 13-foot yellow autonomous surface vehicle, but thousands tuned in on Facebook Live as education specialist Hannah MacDonald interviewed the team of scientists and programmers that operated BEN, which stands for “Bathymetric Explorer and Navigator,” from a control van on land. Now, viewers can re-experience the Thunder Bay expedition and others through Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants offsite link live events that will connect viewers to the expedition lead scientists.

ASV BEN (Bathymetric Explorer and Navigator) is a custom prototype built for University of New Hampshire’s Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping. ASV BEN has a state-of-the art seafloor mapping system that can map depths reaching 650 feet.
ASV BEN (Bathymetric Explorer and Navigator) is a custom prototype built for University of New Hampshire’s Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping. ASV BEN has a state-of-the art seafloor mapping system that can map depths reaching 650 feet. (Ocean Exploration Trust)

BEN’s voyage in the Great Lakes — and six other missions from Massachusetts to American Samoa — were made possible thanks to a $3.5 million award from the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. Viewers with a screen and access to the internet engaged in two-way conversations with expedition teams as they explored the ocean and Great Lakes. In 2019, the Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration, Ocean Exploration Trust, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute led seven expeditions in search of underwater discoveries in national marine sanctuaries. 

Classrooms, museums, science centers, and other organizations connected to live programs during expeditions. "I never miss a chance to join NOAA on an expedition,” said John Caplis, a teacher at Alpena High School in Alpena, Michigan. Caplis teaches a class called Science in Sanctuaries, a place-based learning classroom that focuses on Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. “I love having access to scientists, historians, archaeologists, and the technicians operating the sonar and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) as they explore. We always learn something, and that learning fuels the next lesson."

Team members broadcast live from a mission control van on the shores of Lake Huron. During this mission, the team deployed an autonomous surface vehicle to search for shipwrecks in Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Sanctuaries Live broadcast directly to classrooms and through Facebook Live.
Team members broadcast live from a mission control van on the shores of Lake Huron. During this mission, the team deployed an autonomous surface vehicle to search for shipwrecks in Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Sanctuaries Live broadcast directly to classrooms and through Facebook Live. (Ocean Exploration Trust)

Viewers had the chance to observe a range of ocean research techniques, from autonomous surface vehicles like BEN to ROVs that ventured into deep underwater canyons. In Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off Boston, Research Vessel Connecticut explored the wreck of the Portland, a paddle wheel steamship that tragically sank off the coast of Massachusetts in 1898. A 3D model of the Portland was created during this expedition and is now available to view online. 

Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants, an organization that connects classrooms with global explorers over video calls, shared these programs with their network, reaching over 840 students. "It was exciting to facilitate the connection between students across the country and scientists exploring the deep-sea,” said MacDonald. “The students were able to dive into our national marine sanctuaries with the science teams eager to answer their questions and discuss their work. This unique classroom experience allowed for students to connect with experts in STEM fields that are passionate about sharing their work and exploring national marine sanctuaries." 
 
Over the course of five months and over 90 days at sea, more than 25,000 viewers streamed live feeds and programming to experience the hidden mysteries of the deep sea in real time. Over 4,500 students in classrooms throughout North America connected to live programs where they were able to explore national marine sanctuaries live while learning about the technology, biology, archaeology, and careers involved in the expeditions. 

“Engaging the public in live interactions embodies the idea that national marine sanctuaries are ours to explore, discover, and protect,” said MacDonald. Expeditions are planned to continue in 2020, and with over 95% of our ocean still unexplored, there is a lot to learn!

You are invited to tune into the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries live events with Exploring By The Seat Of Your Pants to learn more about the 2019 expeditions and interact with the lead explorers. For more information, please visit Sanctuaries Live.


A version of this story was featured in the Fiscal Year 2019 NOAA Education Accomplishments Report.