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Diving into the unknown
Katie Valentine
/ Categories: Profile, Women in Research

Diving into the unknown

A day in the life of an ocean explorer

In honor of Women's History Month, NOAA scientists from across the country are taking readers inside what a typical day in their life looks like. Today's story comes from Kasey Cantwell, a physical scientist with the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, who manages ocean exploration missions on the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer (and other research ships). You may be familiar with these missions already, as they’re often live-streamed!  

As a physical scientist with the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (OER), my main responsibility is to plan and manage ocean exploration missions to some of the most unknown and poorly explored areas of our ocean. A number of these expeditions are onboard NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer, which our office uses to conduct remotely operated vehicle (ROV) and mapping exploration. 

Reaching the seafloor

Reaching the seafloor

The most rewarding part of every day while at sea is when the ROVs arrive on the seafloor and finally get to see what’s there!

Our operations are a little different than many traditional research expeditions, which focus on a few questions developed by a principal investigator or chief scientist. We serve a unique role within our field in that our missions are planned to reflect the objectives of the resource management and science communities as a whole, with input from ocean researchers from around the world. I spend months or years working with these communities to to design expeditions to collect high quality, scientifically-important data. This means balancing the demands of multiple scientists with differing objectives, the interests of our partners, and operational constraints, such as distance between sites and how far we can travel in one night.

Though the majority of my time throughout the year revolves around planning expeditions, I am lucky enough to typically spend 30 to 40 days per year at sea on ROV and mapping missions. When I’m at sea, my day usually starts at 6:00 a.m. I spend a little bit of time reading and responding to emails that have come in overnight and then head up to the bridge to meet with our team to evaluate conditions and if, based on the current, weather, and sea state, it is safe to continue with our planned operations for the day. Once we’ve decided to proceed, I head down to our control room to check in with our mapping team to see how things went overnight, and then return to working on emails until the safety meeting at 7:45 a.m.  

Deep Discoverer

Deep Discoverer

Recovering the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Deep Discoverer at night.

Next, the ship crew and the ROV team launch the vehicles (the ROV Deep Discoverer and ROV Seirios). Once they're in the water, the real fun begins! We usually start seeing animals like fish, jellyfish, and ctenophores (which are known as comb jellies) in the water column. The water column, the space between the surface of the ocean and the seafloor, is the largest habitat on earth, and it is one of least explored.   

Once on the seafloor, we never quite know exactly what we’ll find — lush gardens of deep sea corals, a hydrothermal vent, a methane seep, potential new species, or even an underwater cultural heritage site, like a shipwreck or lost aircraft. The beauty of the way we operate is that we are able to work with scientists from all over the world, who connect to the ship in real-time via telepresence technology to identify and discuss these findings.  

Once the ROV dive is done, we switch to mapping operations and have a planning call with our team on shore to discuss the next day. Then it’s back to emails and working on reports for me, while our science team processes samples and writes up the dive summary. If things went smoothly that day, there’s time for an ice cream while watching the sunset or watching a movie with the team before bed. But, if we had bad weather or technical issues, we usually work pretty late into the night to develop contingency plans and rework our remaining operations. While this can be challenging, it is one of my favorite parts of my job, as I enjoy puzzling the pieces together to optimize our plans.

Dumbo octopus

Dumbo octopus

A dumbo octopus spotted during the 2019 Southeastern U.S. Deep-sea Exploration mission.

If you’re looking for a job like mine — or any job in the STEM field — my advice would be to take advantage of every opportunity you have to gain different experiences. Even if you are not exactly sure what you want to do for your career, an internship or a specialized class can help you figure it out, or help you learn what you don’t want to do, which is just as important! Before starting with OER I had never worked in the deep sea, but the mission was inspiring and grabbed my attention from day one. It takes a diversity of individuals with a lot of different backgrounds to make ocean exploration possible. A few years ago we asked our team to give some advice to the next generation of explorers — check it out here.  

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