Life in Salt: An Interview with E/V Nautilus Expedition Leader and Underwater Hockey Player Dr. Katy Croff Bell

by Owen James Burke

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(All media credits: Ocean Exploration Trust, Courtesy of Dr. Katy Croff Bell)

The E/V (Exploration Vessel) Nautilus is a 211-foot-long, 34.5-foot wide, 1249-gross-ton ship currently mapping her way around the world with two ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicles), Hercules and Argus. She was built in 1967 under the East German flag and was eventually acquired in 2009 by famed underwater archaeologist and oceanographer Dr. Robert Ballard and the team at the Ocean Exploration Trust. The Trust has since poured countless hours, blood, sweat and tears into developing the most highly equipped ocean research vessel on earth.

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Thus far, the Nautilus has sailed from Turkey and Israel, through the Mediterranean out to Portugal, and now she’s touring the Caribbean, on her way to an undersea mountain off the coast of Grenada in the Lesser Antilles. Dr. Ballard’s colleague Dr. Katy Croff Bell has led over 13 Nautilus expeditions around the world and has been Chief Scientist and Expedition Leader aboard the Nautilus since the beginning of the mission.

The Nautilus now broadcasts HD video from her two ROVs, streaming incredible footage all around the world. These Nautilus Live webcam broadcasts reach thousands of research scientists, explorers and every other kind of expert and non-expert tuning in at any given time in real time. Best of all for folks like you and me, is that the general public can watch and chime in for free, too – all at the very same time as the team aboard the vessel is marveling at its own footage. This real time collaboration is the future of exploration.

Here’s a recent video clip taken from one of the Nautilus’ ROVs in the Windward Passage between Cuba and Haiti, featuring an unusually large “Dumbo” octopus (Grimpoteuthis), named for its fins which look remarkably like the oversized ears of the Disney cartoon.

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2014 Expedition Map

So you just returned from an expedition. Where were you?

That was on the Mesoamerican Reef off the coast of Belize.

What was the mission?

That one was a little more biologically and archaeologically focused, but we really are interested in anything and everything we might find.

What were some of the more interesting things that you found off Belize?

The biology was focused on deep sea corals. We collected almost 30 samples which are being shipped back to the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, which is our archive for biological samples so that scientists around the world can request archives and do studies on them.

So the interest there was that these were all potentially new species to science?

Possibly, yes. We’re not quite sure yet, and nobody has ever looked in the deep waters off of Belize before, so it’s all completely new territory.

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How did you get involved with the Ocean Exploration Trust and Nautilus?

Well, I went to sea for the first time with [Dr. Robert] Ballard when I was an undergraduate in college studying ocean engineering and our department got an email that said “does anybody want to look for shipwrecks in the Black Sea this summer?” and I said “yes.” That was my first time going to sea, and a lot of people in our department went into the oil and gas industry or the Navy, and I wasn’t really interested in either. This was a cool opportunity to apply what I was studying to more of a scientific field. So I went out to the Black Sea for a week off the coast of Turkey and was hooked. I finished up my degree and after spending a couple of summers going on various expeditions I went off and did a Masters in Archaeology in England.

Then as I was finishing that program, Bob (Dr. Robert Ballard) was starting out here at the University of Rhode Island and asked me to come do my Ph.D here. It took about 7 years and during that time we had various expeditions all around the world. I was getting more and more responsibility for leading cruises and planning the expeditions and about 4 years into it he went and got the ship. That’s when we got Nautilus and when I graduated I became full-time with the Trust. It’s been really cool to build up the program from scratch.

It must be incredible having Dr. Ballard as a mentor, too.

Oh, it absolutely is. He is a brilliant person and just incredibly inspiring to work with.

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So the Nautilus was built in Germany in 1967 as a research vessel, but it’s quite old and its equipment must have been extremely outdated. How did The Ocean Exploration Trust acquire it?

It was in Germany at the time and it had been sitting at the dock for years and years and wasn’t able to be certified to sail. So we had to put a lot of money into it from the beginning just to get it up to standard. Then we brought it around to Turkey, where it was based between 2009-2012. We traveled through all of the Mediterranean from Israel to Portugal and up into the Black and Aegean Seas, too.

What was it like getting all of that equipment onto the boat and refitting the vessel for modern exploration? I just can’t imagine piecing such modern technology together with those old bones. It sounds like Frankenship or something —

Transforming it from this very spartan East German vessel to a more comfortable place to live aboard, yes. You wouldn’t believe the pictures from when we first got it to now. It’s pretty incredible. So it’s been a lot of fun to build all that stuff into the Nautilus now that we sort of have a home.

We’re still in the midst of it; it’s still not quite finished. It’s been really exciting to make it on our own. We’ve had the ROVs and the command center that we use to control them. Prior to having the ship, we had a flyaway system so we would pack everything up in about 5 shipping containers and send them to wherever the research vessel was that we we would be using, install everything, run tons of cables all over the place, and then pack it up and ship it home.

So you’re constantly mapping and collecting data the whole time is in the water, correct? What’s your range like?

There are different scales of mapping. We have a very large sonar mounted to the hull of the ship that is able to collect up to 7 or 8 kilometers swathe. When we’re working in shallower water, you can cover less, but that creates a bathymetric map of the shape of the seafloor. With that, you can also see bubbles (i.e. methane) coming up out of the seafloor if you’re in an area where there’s oil and gas coming up, like in the Gulf (of Mexico), you can see them on the sonar.

Hydrothermal vents as well?

If there are bubbles. You have to have a density difference.

So there’s that scale, and if we’re going to an area which has never been mapped before, that’s the first thing that we’re gonna do. We do a big multi-beam survey to get an idea of the shape of the seafloor, and also the density of the seafloor. So we’re able to see where there are hard rocks and where there’s soft sediment. Oftentimes, if we’re doing biologically-focused surveys, the biologists want to go to places that have hard substrate, or hard rocks, because that’s where coral and other things can sort of latch on and grow; they can’t grow on sediment. So that’s first order of business.

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The towfish [have] a side scan sonar, and [those] we mostly use for archaeological surveys. (Diana, Nautilus’ smaller towfish uses dual frequencies with a range of approximately 200 meters on either side, and can be trolled down to 2,000 meters. The larger towfish, Echo, has five channels and covers a swathe of about 1,000 meters) It’s a different type of sonar that looks at, again, the density differences. They’re able to see things that are harder or softer. With shipwrecks, oftentimes – and especially more modern ones – you can see that it’s the shape of a shipwreck, but you can’t actually see (like you can with a camera) what you’re looking at.

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So then, you put in the ROVs, Hercules and Argus which work together, and those have video cameras on them. So as you go from the multi-beam, to the side-scan, to the ROVs, you’re getting higher resolutions, and you’re able to actually distinguish what you’re seeing, but you’re able to cover less area.

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It’s a tradeoff, and you choose your tools depending on what you want to do.

Moving away from the technical stuff, what do you want the general public to get out of Nautilus? How and why do you want to engage and inspire people?

A few different things. One is just to understand that our planet is so unexplored and there’s really a lot to learn from it, both in terms of what the resources are that we have that aren’t utilized and whether we should use them or put them into marine reserves. These are all the kinds of questions that need to be answered, but it’s tough to answer them when you don’t even know what’s down there.

And also, a very large part of our mission is to use the excitement of exploration to inspire children to appreciate and hopefully study science, technology, engineering and math, because there are so many careers and opportunities in some fields that the kids aren’t gonna be able to go into if they don’t study science, math and engineering when they’re in school and go off to college.

What parts or aspects of the ocean need the most exploring right now?

The Indian Ocean is one of the least-explored ocean basins on the planet. The Pacific Ocean is just enormous. We’ve barely scratched the surface. Up in the Arctic, there’s tons and tons left to explore, so students should not be thinking that everything’s been done before, because it absolutely has not and it will take a long, long time.

You mentioned the Gulf of Mexico; you had been on expedition there to study the effects of the Deepwater Horizon spill. What was that like?

It’s been really interesting working with that particular group that’s studying the impacts. They’ve been going to the same exact corals once or twice a year since the oil spill happened to try and figure out what’s going on with those deep sea habitats. Some of the corals are coming back, and some are not. So we’re trying to understand what’s going on there, what the dynamics are, and how the deep sea ecosystems of the future would be impacted if something like this were to happen again.

Is there any time frame you’re working with for how long this circumnavigating expedition will take? It’s an incredibly daunting task; are you just kind of taking it in small strides?

We’ve got time, haha. Next year we’re going to start our first expedition in the Pacific Ocean, and the Pacific is huge, it covers a third of the planet. So I imagine that we’ll spend several years there and hopefully be able to get into the eastern Indian Ocean, at least a bit, because that area is very, very poorly understood. So I could see maybe basing in Australia so we can launch in different directions.

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So the ship is at sea for about 4-6 months? How much of your time do you spend on expedition, at sea?

Typically about two months a year.

And that will be sort of on and off? A week on, a few weeks off?

Usually a couple weeks and up to a month, and I’ll go back and forth. We have a small pool of folks that we call expedition leaders, so we all switch out over the course of the expedition and that all depends on what the goals of the particular crews are and who’s best suited to lead it.

This is one of the greatest collaborations in the history of scientific exploration, largely because you’ve got some of the most prolific researchers working together thanks to Nautilus Live; what have been some of your most exciting moments working with Nautilus and the Ocean Exploration Trust?

Just the fact that we have it is incredible, and the fact that we can share what we’re doing with people in real time, from the scientists. It’s all incredibly useful because we can greatly increase the brainpower behind an expedition, but also share it with anybody around the world and they can ask questions and we can answer them in real time.

When we first started streaming, we didn’t have the ability for people to write in and for us to reply to them, so it was really just a one-way conversation with people having to listen to whatever we happened to be talking about. But having that ability, I think, is really important because we get a better sense of what people are interested in and how we can explain things better so they can understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. It’s really been a lot of fun to develop over the past four or five years, that capability, and continually working to improve that experience.

You should come by the Inner Space Center sometime.

Careful, I’ll definitely take you up on that. You’ve got a huge network of all kinds of experts. Is there anything you’ve not been able to identify, even with the help of experts? Have you had any nonprofessionals or even children point anything out?

Oh yeah. Especially a couple of times in the Mediterranean when we’ve found shipwrecks and an airplane wreck, actually. We had people who were living nearby where we were working and they were watching and writing in and saying, “Hey, I think that’s a Machi C202” which is an Italian airplane that got shot down by the British during the Battle of Pantelleria. And there was a Greek ship that went down off Turkey in the 1950s. So yes, we absolutely have people that are not experts but know their areas and their history and are able to contribute as well.

What have been some of your more shocking findings?

Last year, the most exciting finding was when we were working off the coast of Grenada. There’s an underwater volcano very close to shore called Kick ‘em Jenny (in reference to the large rocks she threw nearly 1,000 feet into the air when she erupted in 1939). We were gonna be doing a dive on what looked like a large deposit from a landslide. We think that Kick ’em Jenny, which is now completely submerged, was probably an island in the past and erupted and caused a big landslide and all of this rock and debris went flowing down the slope.

So we were gonna go dive on those rocks and debris just to see what was there and collect some samples to essentially be able to date that event. Because it was an underwater landslide and it was just going to be a whole bunch of rocks and stuff, we didn’t think it’d be all that exciting of a dive. In fact, we had a National Geographic film crew onboard and they were scheduled to go home that day. So we said, “Don’t worry about it. It’s going to be the most boring dive ever, you won’t miss anything.” And of course, that turned out to be one of the most exciting dives because methane or some organic-rich fluid was spewing out of the seafloor. There were gigantic mussels 14 inches long, there were octopuses and brittle stars and all sorts of other organisms living on this gas seep that was coming up out of the seafloor. That was definitely unexpected and really quite exciting because the implications are that if there are underwater landslides all over the world and nobody ever thought to dive on them previously because they thought it was just going to be a pile of rocks and not that exciting. Now, there’s the potential for there to be a large amount of this carbon-rich fluid coming out of the seafloor and going into the ocean and it’s definitely on the list of types of places to go to.

Watch video footage of “champagne bubbles” (CO2) seeping up from Kick ’em Jenny at the Trinidad and Tobago Tar Seeps, captured on a Nautilus expedition in September 2013:

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Then there are times like when we were looking for underwater volcanoes off Sicily and we found that airplane. It’s always unexpected.

Demands must be very high when you’re on a big research vessel like Nautilus. What do you think might be the most difficult part of being on expedition for you?

Getting enough sleep. You’re on standing watches. We work 24 hours a day, so we have three teams of people who work 4 hours on, 8 hours off. As expedition leader, your role is to make sure that everybody onboard has the tools they need to be able to do their job. You’re constantly making sure that everyone’s okay, teams are working well together and everybody’s happy and healthy and well-fed. So you’re sort of team leader and cheerleader and everything in between.

Where are you headed on your next expedition?

I’m headed down to Grenada for about a week in September. We have a very large science team that’s going to be onshore supporting the final leg of the cruise that’s going to be looking at Kick ‘em Jenny again, the underwater volcano I was telling you about, as well as an area off Trinidad and Tobago that has mud volcanoes.

So we’re gonna have a pretty big science team leading most of the expedition from shore, which is new for us, and will be really exciting.

Mud volcano? What’s that?

It’s not like a volcano in Hawaii. It’s typically when you have compression. The Atlantic Plate is going beneath the Caribbean Plate just to the east of the Lesser Antilles, so that whole volcanic island arch. As it’s going down, a lot of sediment is being scraped off the plate and getting squished. That compression is causing organic-rich fluids to come up and form what looks like a volcano, but it’s not actually lava. It’s just organic-rich fluids and mud that come up and form a volcano-looking structure.

Why is the seafloor the most crucial stage for exploration right now? Why not put these resources into space exploration?

It’s our own home. It’s so close for a potential for useful discovery and it’s right here. It seems silly to me not to explore it. It’s like moving into a house and only opening three out of ten doors and not ever knowing what’s behind door number seven.

I agree. I just had to ask the question. Do you think enough resources are going into ocean exploration when compared with space exploration?

Absolutely not. I think that NASA’s budget in one year could fund NOAA’s (the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) exploration program for a thousand years.

Unbelievable. And they’re finding almost nothing, huh?

Ha! Well, I wouldn’t say nothing, but I do think that the return on the investment for ocean exploration is much greater.

What are your earliest memories of being around water? How were you first seduced by the sea and what drew you toward ocean exploration?

I grew up in San Diego and I think I was jumping off diving boards since before I could walk. As long as I can remember, the sea has been part of my life.

So when I went to college and found out about Ocean Engineering, it just seemed like a natural fit. I didn’t even know it existed. I was going to go into something biological or biomedical. I took one class and that was it.

What are your favorite books about the sea?

In the Kingdom of Ice. It’s about the first U.S. expedition to go to the North Pole, the USS Jeannette Expedition. There’s one about ocean exploration and the mysteries of the deep by William J. Broad, who writes for the New York Times, called The Universe Below: Discovering the Secrets of the Deep.

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Sunset, from aboard Nautilus

If you weren’t in ocean exploration right now, what do you think you might be doing?

Nothing. Maybe sailing around the world or something.

Nothing? Hardly! How do you spend your time on the water when you’re not working?

I go out swimming, we have a couple kayaks. I took up underwater hockey this winter. It’s so much fun. I usually come home pretty bruised. It’s like 5 on 5, all old guys and me.

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Follow Dr. Katy Croff Bell on twitter @KatyCroffBell, and the Nautilus‘ expedition on Nautilus Live and the Ocean Exploration Trust.

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