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An upcoming voyage by a University of Louisiana at Lafayette oceanographer will take him where no person has gone before – and the public is invited along for the ride.

Dr. Scott France will direct a three-week expedition to document what lies beneath the surface of a remote section of the Pacific Ocean. His trip aboard the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer will take him from American Samoa to Hawaii, some 2,550 nautical miles away.

Using sonar mapping technology and a remotely operated vehicle, the scientists will explore geological formations and ecosystems in a vast section of the Pacific Ocean where no documented explorations have taken place. The ship will beam back real-time images to a worldwide audience watching on the internet or registered scientists participating via an online chat room.

“This is real exploration,” said France, a professor of biology. “It’s so remote. We are going to places nobody on Earth has ever been before. We will literally be seeing it for the first time, and sharing that on the internet with anyone who wants to tune in.”

It will be France’s third voyage aboard the ship, which is operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The 225-foot vessel is the only federally funded ship assigned to explore uncharted swaths of ocean to document geological formations and living creatures that thrive below the waves.

France’s first sojourn, in 2014, explored canyons and underwater mountains in the North Atlantic. The following year, France joined a NOAA expedition in the deep waters of the Hawaiian Archipelago, the inaugural voyage of a three-year initiative focused on the deep ocean of U.S. marine-protected areas in the central and western Pacific.

The mission France will join later this week will help conclude that same program, called CAPSTONE, the Campaign to Address Pacific monument Science, Technology and Ocean Needs. Since its inception, CAPSTONE has mapped 115,831 square miles of sea floor – an area roughly the size of Italy, yet only a fraction of the unexplored portions of the world’s largest ocean – using sonar technology and the Deep Discoverer, a remotely operated vehicle, or ROV.

Researchers on board will direct 15 dives using the Deep Discoverer to explore seamounts as well as habitats of deep-sea coral, sponges and bottom fish living within the Pacific Remote Islands National Monument and the National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa, which both lie within U.S. territorial waters, and Marea Moana, a marine park governed by the Cook Islands.

The Deep Discoverer can descend 20,000 feet, or 3.7 miles. It’s tethered to the Okeanos Explorer by a fiber-optic cable that transmits images, captured by its nine cameras, to the ship and to anyone watching the feed online. Interactive features allow viewers – scientists, students or the public – to send requests to the ship via phone or an online chatroom.

As the mission’s science lead, France’s job will be to relay those requests. It’s a role he likened to that of an air-traffic controller, regulating how the mission plays out.

France will communicate directly with the team that controls the Deep Discoverer. The crew includes a navigator, who in turn will relay messages to the bridge of the ship to stabilize the vessel so the ROV might collect samples or capture close-up images.

Surface winds and currents, coupled with subsurface currents and topography, make the dives “a complicated dance.”

“I have headsets and a microphone and I am talking to the (ROV crew), saying ‘This is what we want, now I want you to go here, get a close-up of that, we would like to sample this.

“You are streaming this out, so experts all over the world can be helping you identify whether (what they are seeing) is something novel or exciting,” France continued. 

This teleprescence allows the audience to “literally go to sea without actually stepping on a boat. The images are so clear you can hardly believe you are underwater.”

Videos streamed from the Deep Discoverer during its dives have gained a huge online following, earning some 5 million views over the project’s three years. “We never know exactly what we’ll see,” said NOAA’s Kelley Elliot, the expedition manager. “During the first two years of CAPSTONE, Okeanos Explorer expeditions discovered new species, observed unseen behaviors and found living animals previously only seen as lab specimens.”

Despite these discoveries, however, France said scientists remain in a “level of infancy” in understanding life and geography in the deep sea.

“These expeditions are frustratingly tantalizing because we get just the barest taste and picture of what’s going on,” he said. “We are just getting this one little picture. In fact, in a day, it’s unlikely that the ROV will travel more than 900 meters –
that’s basically three football fields. That’s what we get to see.

“Imagine you are exploring somewhere in the Rockies and that’s the amount of distance (you cover). Do you think you know everything about that mountain from that one little trip? Of course you don’t. But that's better than nothing."

France and the Okeanos Explorer will depart Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa, a territory of the United States, on Thursday. He will arrive in Honolulu, Hawaii, on May 19.

Viewers can find more information and follow the journey at http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/okeanos/explorations/ex1705/welcome.html

Top photo: UL Lafayette oceanographer Dr. Scott France aboard the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer during a 2015 expedition of the Johnson Atoll unit of the Pacific Remote Islands National Monument. He’ll return to the ship – and to the Pacific – this week. (Credit: Scott France).

Inset photo: France communicates with the crew controlling a remotely operated vehicle during his 2015 voyage aboard the Okeanos Explorer. (Credit: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research).