Citizen Science

The Moonlighting Scientist

April 26, 2017

Jellyfish swimming with fish catching a ride at Grays Reef National Marine Sanctuary. © Greg McFall

As a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) descends into the ocean depths, inky blackness slowly consumes all sunlight. Jellyfish and unidentified floating objects drift by, marine snow shimmers in the vehicle’s headlights.

Suddenly, mountains and canyons taller and deeper than any on land materialize out of the darkness. Then, a voice breaks over the intercom, Bridge, this is Nav, can we move five-meters South and hold position? Okay, let’s get underway again. Bearing 180°, 20 meters.”

Navigator Rich Bell (blue helmet, sunglasses) working on the deck of the Nautilus. © Ocean Exploration Trust
Navigator Rich Bell (blue helmet, sunglasses) working on the deck of the Nautilus. © Ocean Exploration Trust

Who is the man behind ‘Nav’? His name is Rich Bell.

Scientist by Day, Navigator by Night

When he’s not helping the Conservancy manage global fisheries, marine scientist Rich Bell occasionally moonlights as Navigator aboard Exploration Vessel (E/V) Nautilus – one of only two ships in the U.S. dedicated to exploration.

Bell developed his navigational skills growing up on the waters of New England and has perfected them throughout his career. But why is a Conservancy scientist taking vacation to gallivant around the globe on an exploration vessel?

Rich explains in his own words:

“Being aboard Nautilus allows me to explore unknown parts of the world and use different skills,” says Bell. “Plus, it’s also a great opportunity for learning – lots of talented people in a small space fosters cross-pollination of ideas, methods, and tools. I’ve built relationships that have led to new methods for achieving my Conservancy goals. For instance, I once went to sea with a robotics professor [author’s note: this is how all good stories start] who specializes in image processing – consequently, I recently submitted a proposal to use his underwater camera system to study fish and fish habitat. Most importantly, being on the water is one of the main reasons I became a marine scientist.”

In his five years with Nautilus, Rich has done and seen fantastic things: placing the ship directly above an active underwater volcano, discovering shipwrecks of the Greek and Roman eras in the Black Sea, and studying a seamount off Cyprus populated with chemosynthetic worms that use chemicals (typically hydrogen, sulfide or methane) rather than photosynthesis to make their food.

Don’t Tangle the Tethers

Rich is part of a large team, both aboard and ashore, working together to get the ship in the correct location and the ROVs into the water. As Navigator, it’s Rich’s responsibility to ensure that the ROV and crew remain unscathed while conducting their research. To do this, he calculates position using a combination of 3-D geometry, latitude, longitude, distance, and compass bearings. Rich then communicates these headings to the Captain who positions the ship accordingly.

“The circumstances are really spectacular, but also tense,” notes Bell. “Think of a helicopter, tethered to a smaller helicopter, working around the Rocky Mountains…at night. It’s very exhilarating but you have to be very careful.”

Nautilus crew launching the ROV Hercules © Ocean Exploration Trust
Nautilus crew launching the ROV Hercules © Ocean Exploration Trust

There are a lot of moving parts: On typical dives, the ship is tethered to the ROV Argus which can descend as far as 2 ½ miles below the ocean’s surface. As the ship bobs, so too does Argus far below the surface – much like a yo-yo on a string. Waves can cause the vessels to move upwards and downwards as much as 5 or more meters at a time. This movement can make it very difficult to maneuver the Argus successfully and safely. So, to combat the movement, a second ROV, Hercules, can be tethered to Argus, and because it is not directly connected to the ship, Hercules is not affected by wave action and is therefore much easier to operate.

Rich must be ever-aware of the position of the ship, each ROV, and any surrounding obstacles to avoid tangled tethers and ROV collisions. And, speaking of collisions, notes Bell, researchers should not be allowed to drive either the ship or the ROV. “They get so excited,” he says, “that they drive themselves into problems.”

 E/V Nautilus

The 212-foot Nautilus roams the world’s oceans using ROVs and multibeam sonar to conduct research related to oceanography, geology, biology and archeology. The crew has sent ROVs to places that no one has ever seen and mapped parts of the ocean that have never been mapped. Such science is vital for helping environmental agencies and organizations make informed decisions concerning ocean management.

E/V Nautilus © Ocean Exploration Trust
E/V Nautilus © Ocean Exploration Trust

“Seeking out and exploring the bottom of the sea is fantastic and parallels work at the Conservancy,” says Bell. “Being on board enables me to get a different look at the science of the ocean and humans’ role in it. I always come back invigorated with new ideas for tackling my fisheries work.”

But, the science isn’t just for agencies and organizations. The Nautilus welcomes persons from around the globe to explore with them via HD, livestreaming, underwater cameras.

“The telepresence is something that sets this program apart from all other exploration programs. It enables the public to be fully immersed [no pun intended],” says Bell. “In some sense, it is as much about sharing the work with those on shore as it is about achieving a specific scientific goal. It helps illustrate the role of science in the broader world and I believe it inspires the next generation of scientists and engineers.”

By enabling citizens to engage with science, the Nautilus program is educating and empowering people to conserve our oceans. Here at the Conservancy, we salute that.

The 2017 Nautilus Expedition gets underway this May and will stream live from sea through November. Join the team as they explore off the coasts of the Pacific Northwest, California, and Baja.

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