The NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program’s 2012 Gulf of Mexico cruise combined cutting edge technologies to create a unique experience for both the public at large and the scientists involved in the project (http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/okeanos/explorations/ex1202/welcome.html). This public outreach experience is a key concept of the Okeanos Explorer cruises. The premise behind the program is simple, but effective; NOAA provides the vessel, the exploration equipment, and the satellite uplinks to literally beam the data to a larger audience of scientists than could ever be brought offshore. With only a small compliment of scientists, engineers, and computer specialists guiding the operations shipboard, a larger science team participates in real time from shore via live streaming video, internet chat rooms, conference calls, and specially equipped Exploration Command Centers. The live internet streams also allow the public to become part of the science team, by watching the explorations with the scientists, listening to their commentary, and even participating through an “Ask an Explorer” option on the NOAA website.
The 2012 Gulf of Mexico cruise was unique even for the Okeanos Explorer program, since, for the first time, the cruise’s research objectives included a marine archaeology component. The inclusion of marine archaeology in the project brought together a truly multidisciplinary team of marine archaeologists, biologists, geologists, and geophysicists to investigate each of the proposed archaeological sites. It also brought the rare opportunity for Federal, private, and academic marine archaeologists to collaborate together on a project. Marine archaeologists representing federal agencies including the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (http://www.boem.gov/Environmental-Stewardship/Archaeology/Gulf-of-Mexico-Archaeological-Information.aspx), the Bureau of Safety and environmental Enforcement ( http://www.bsee.gov/), the Naval Heritage and History Command (http://www.history.navy.mil/ ), and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (http://www.noaa.gov/) joined marine archaeologists from private industry such as C & C Technologies (http://www.cctechnol.com/site66.php), Geoscience Earth and Marine Services (GEMS), a Forum Energy Technologies Company, (http://www.f-e-t.com/our_products_technologies/subsea-olutions/geoscience-earth-marine-services/), and Tesla Offshore (http://www.teslaexploration.com/), and marine archaeologists from the University of Rhode Island, to assess archaeological sites selected for investigation during the project.
The initial discussions to select sites for investigation during the Gulf of Mexico cruise provided the first opportunity for outreach among the marine archaeologists and for us to work as a team. Each archaeologist brought their “favorite” site to the table for consideration. The site discussions allowed each of us to give our perspective based on years of experience and familiarity with the region. The team soon winnowed the options down to the five most promising sites for marine archaeology, biology, and geology based on our background knowledge and the data available. Once chosen, the archaeology team forwarded the final archaeological investigation site recommendations to the NOAA lead scientist who once again challenged each site’s validity and its fit within the overall science mission. Ultimately five archaeological sites were explored by the Okeanos Explorer’s team of scientists.
Although the technology needed to transmit the imagery to shore allowing us to direct the missions and discuss in real time what we were seeing was impressive, it was in the public outreach that we, as archaeologists, found our greatest satisfaction. Our ability to share these projects with our friends, coworkers, students, and most importantly our families gave us a special opportunity. For brief moments, we were able to bring our friends and family into our world to share the excitement of discovery with us as it happened! From the first dive on an archaeological site, a pile of wire rigging and rigging components from a sailing vessel, offices, classrooms, and homes streamed the live feeds of our dives, listening as the archaeological team threw out ideas about what the video was showing, guided the pilots to specific locations, and in general became the voices of sites unseen for over a century. If March Madness is a drain on office productivity in the U.S., the NOAA Okeanos Explorer cruise crashed office productivity across the globe.
Our colleagues at research companies, survey companies, oil and gas companies, accounting companies, energy companies, and universities watched our web stream to see what new discoveries waited thousands of feet below the Gulf of Mexico’s waters. Social networking soon became part of the project as we posted the times for each dive, answered questions, and held open discussions on our Facebook pages. Our spouses found themselves celebrities at work as their colleagues piled into their offices to watch the feed and ask questions. Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) survey crews working offshore tuned into the feed to watch the video display shipwreck sites they had discovered a few scant months before. Shipwreck mania took over the Offshore Technology Conference as Oil and Gas Companies wanted to know “whose site” was being looked at and when their location would be next. Our phones rang, our bosses stopped through, our colleagues would sneak into our offices to watch each engaging moment of discovery and discourse. We were the new greatest reality show our colleagues had ever seen.
At the close of each day’s dive we made our ways home to our spouses who would pepper us with questions about what they saw on the screen, who Paasch was, why was everyone so excited about Lophelia coral, or what was so impressive about a pile of wire rigging? These were the moments that made the technology and the public outreach human. There we sat drawing pictures, sharing stories, and engaging our spouses, in many cases for the first time, in our “daily” lives in a way that simply wasn’t possible at any other time. Such a “Eureka” moment happened in our house after we looked at the second wreck site, which turned out to be an iron hulled sailing ship similar to Barque Elissa (http://www.galvestonhistory.org/1877_tall_ship_elissa.asp) where my spouse and I were married. Imagine my husband’s shock when, sitting in his office at work, he realized “that looks just like ELISSA!” Suddenly my work took on a whole new level of interest, intrigue, and possibilities.
The technology to get us to the sites, and the interactions it enabled made the 2012 Gulf of Mexico project one of a kind in the archaeological community, but the opportunities it offered in terms of outreach within our individual spheres of influence were magnified exponentially. What just a few years ago would have been a project with limited exposure now became a global experience, shared through each individual person and then shared again through their families, children, spouses, colleagues, and clients. Archaeologists, and scientists in general are just beginning to grasp the limitless opportunities for exploration and outreach those programs such as the Okeanos Explorer cruises can provide. No longer is the question how to do it, but rather where will we go next and what discoveries await us?