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Engineer and Alvin Pilot Drew Bewley working in the Alvin Birdcage

Meet the Alvin 6500 Team: Drew Bewley

March 31, 2021

Alvin engineer and pilot Drew Bewley on what best prepared him to work on a one-of-a-kind submersible and the overhaul that will take Alvin to 6500 meters.

The Search for Life

February 17, 2021

This week, NASA’s Perseverance Rover lands on Mars to continue the search for life on the Red Planet. At the same time, WHOI scientists and engineers are applying their experience exploring the deepest parts of planet Earth to the quest…

WHOI builds bridges with Arctic Indigenous communities

February 10, 2021

NSF program fosters collaboration between indigenous communities and traditional scientists, allowing WHOI’s autonomous vehicles to shed light on a changing Arctic

Lane Abrams

Meet the Alvin 6500 Team: Lane Abrams

December 22, 2020

Lane Abrams talks about designing electronics for the bottom of the ocean and project management of Alvin’s electrical updates for the 6500 meter overhaul.

Smart cameras keep lookout for endangered whales

December 17, 2020

A ship-mounted thermal imaging system provides real-time detection of whales, which could reduce the number of endangered marine mammals killed by vessels each year.

Francis Elder testing new variable ballast pump for Alvin

Meet the Alvin 6500 Team: Francis Elder

December 16, 2020

An interview with Francis Elder, lead mechanical engineer for the Alvin Group. Find out how the team has designed a new pump to take Alvin to 6,500 meters.

Could listening to the deep sea help save it?

November 10, 2020

A recent New York Times article about sound in the deep ocean briefly mentions the work by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) acoustic scientist Ying-Tsong “YT” Lin and his work developing an “acoustic telescope.”

Wave Glider provides gateway to remote exploration

November 10, 2020

WHOI geochemist Chris German pairs an autonomous surface vehicle (ASV) called a Wave Glider with other vehicles to expand research here and on other Ocean Worlds

WHOI-assisted study finds ocean dumping of DDT waste was “sloppy”

October 29, 2020

An investigative report this week in the LA Times features the work of WHOI’s marine geochemistry lab in identifying the discarded barrels and analyzing samples from the discovery.

Can seismic data mules protect us from the next big one?

October 7, 2020

Ocean scientists leverage game-changing technologies to improve our understanding of the global ocean’s most dangerous earthquake faults and enable more advanced warnings for seismic risk.

News Releases

Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers Honors WHOI Scientist

December 29, 2020

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers  (IEEE) elected Dana Yoerger as a 2021 fellow for the development of autonomous underwater vehicles for deep-ocean exploration and science. Yoerger is a senior scientist in the Applied Ocean Physics & Engineering Department at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and a pioneering researcher in robotics and underwater vehicles.

Yoerger is a long-time, key contributor to the remotely-operated vehicle Jason, the autonomous underwater vehicles ABE and Sentry, and the hybrid remotely operated vehicle Nereus, which reached the bottom of the Mariana Trench in 2009. His current research focuses on designing and developing robots to explore the midwater regions of the world’s ocean. He leads a team that designed the new underwater robot called Mesobot,  which non-invasively tracks midwater animals that play an important role in the movement of carbon through the world’s oceans.

Yoerger has gone to sea on over 80 oceanographic expeditions exploring the Mid-Ocean Ridge, mapping underwater seamounts and volcanoes, surveying ancient and modern shipwrecks, and studying the environmental effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. He also supervises the research and academic programs of graduate students studying oceanographic engineering in the MIT/WHOI Joint Program.

“It’s truly an honor to be chosen as an IEEE fellow,” says Yoerger. “I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with very capable engineers and researchers at WHOI and from around the world who enabled me to make a difference.”

A distinction as an IEEE Fellow is reserved for select members whose extraordinary accomplishments in any of the related fields of interest are deemed fitting of this prestigious grade elevation. The total number of members honored in any one year as a fellow can’t exceed one-tenth of one- percent of the total voting membership. IEEE Fellow is the highest grade of membership and is recognized by the technical community as a prestigious honor and an important career achievement.

The IEEE is the world’s leading professional association for advancing technology for humanity. Through its 400,000 plus members in 160 countries, the association is a leading authority on a wide variety of areas ranging from aerospace systems, computers and telecommunications to biomedical engineering, electric power and consumer electronics.

Dedicated to the advancement of technology, the IEEE publishes 30 percent of the world’s literature in the electrical and electronics engineering and computer science fields, and has developed more than 1300 active industry standards.  The association also sponsors or co-sponsors nearly 1700 international technical conferences each year. To learn more about IEEE or the IEEE Fellow Program, please visit


Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930, its mission is to understand the ocean and its interactions with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate an understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. WHOI’s pioneering discoveries stem from an ideal combination of science and engineering—one that has made it one of the most trusted and technically advanced leaders in fundamental and applied ocean research and exploration anywhere. WHOI is known for its multidisciplinary approach, superior ship operations, and unparalleled deep-sea robotics capabilities. We play a leading role in ocean observation, and operate the most extensive suite of ocean data-gathering platforms in the world. Top scientists, engineers, and students collaborate on more than 800 concurrent projects worldwide—both above and below the waves—pushing the boundaries of knowledge to inform people and policies for a healthier planet. For more information, please visit

WHOI reveals upgrades to iconic submersible Alvin

December 10, 2020

One of the world’s most prolific research submersibles will put 99% of the ocean floor within reach of science community when it relaunches in 2021

Increased depth range and the ability to explore 99% of the ocean floor, including the abyssal region—one of the least understood areas of the deep sea—are just some of the upgrades underway for the iconic human-occupied Vehicle (HOV) Alvin that were unveiled today at the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) Fall Meeting 2020. Researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), Portland State University, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shared details on the upgrades, the importance of human exploration of the deep ocean, and what new science questions they hope to answer when Alvin dives again in September 2021.

Participating in today’s event were Bruce Strickrott, WHOI Group Manager and Chief Pilot of the Deep Submergence Vehicle Alvin; Adam Soule, Chief Scientist of the National Deep Submergence Facility (NDSF) at WHOI; Dr. Anna-Louise Reysenbach, Professor of Microbiology in the Biology Department at Portland State University, Portland, Oregon and current chair of the Deep Submergence Science Committee (DeSSC); and Chad King, a research specialist at NOAA’s Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS) in California.

Alvin is one of the most recognized deep submergence vessels in the world and the only one in the U.S. capable of carrying humans into extreme ocean depths. The sub has completed 5,065 successful dives, more than all other submersible programs worldwide combined. When Alvin relaunches next fall, the iconic sub will have the ability to dive to 6500 meters (21,325 feet)—almost 4 miles deep and 2,000 meters deeper than Alvin’s current maximum depth of 4500 meters (14,800 feet). The upgrade will also give the sub access to 99% of the ocean floor.

Alvin was commissioned in 1964 and is named after WHOI physicist and oceanographer Allyn Vine, who was an early proponent of U.S investment deep-sea submersibles. The original Alvin was only rated for depths up to 1,829 meters (6,000 feet), but advancements in syntactic foam, a specialized material that can provide buoyancy at great depth, provided access to greater depths. As this and other technologies have improved, the scope of Alvin’s capabilities have also expanded. When this latest overhaul is completed, Alvin will enable in-person study of the lower Abyssal Zone and the upper Hadal Zone—one of the least-understood parts of the deep sea and home to high-temperature hydrothermal vents, submarine volcanoes, subduction trenches, mineral resources, and more. This will also give the science community an unprecedented opportunity to visit a critically under-studied part of the planet that plays a role in carbon and nutrient cycling and that will offer a view into how life might be evolved to conditions in oceans beyond Earth.

Alvin is the only publicly funded, human-occupied vehicle available to the U.S. scientific community for exploring the abyssal region in-person. To date, 3,076 researchers have shared a firsthand experience unlike any other in science, allowing in-situ data and sample collection and direct observation of the seafloor and water column on dives lasting up to 10 hours.

Chad King is a research specialist at NOAA’s Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS) in California who made his first dive in Alvin in March 2019 to a part of the sanctuary now known as the Octopus Garden.  It was the first visit to this area after its discovery in 2018, and data collected by King in Alvin that confirmed that warm water was seeping from the seafloor, something the mother octopuses appeared to be using to incubate their eggs. The dive also documented the first hatching of baby octopus at this site, proving that it was a viable nursery.

“It was a remarkable experience to be able to see, for the first time, these animals mere feet away, in three dimensions, and to give context to the surrounding environment,” said King. “It’s an experience I will never forget.”

According to Adam Soule, the sub is also an important tool for fostering new generations of scientists. “Sometimes the sub is viewed as inaccessible to early-career scientists or those who haven’t used it yet,” he said. “That is not true. If someone has a good idea and they want to use Alvin, they will get to use Alvin. The increased range and scope will be incredibly helpful in an environment where we know very little and have to use our observation skills to decide where to go and what samples to collect.”

Additional upgrades to Alvin include:

  • New titanium ballast spheres and syntactic foam modules rated to 6,500 meters.
  • Improved high-quality still and 4K video imaging systems.
  • More energy-efficient, fully redundant hydraulic system with increased pressure and flow rate and new hydraulic valve manifolds.
  • Higher-horsepower thrusters designed and built inhouse and based on a proven WHOI design.
  • New motor controllers.
  • New pressure housings to complete upgrade to 6,500-meter operations.
  • Updated command-and-control system to integrate the new hydraulic and motor controller systems into Alvin’s advanced digital piloting and control/ monitoring interface.
  • Enhanced sampling capabilities with an additional manipulator arm.

Based at WHOI, the Alvin Group is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), U.S. Navy, and NOAA. The group supports all aspects of the sub’s operations, including maintaining and piloting the sub while at sea, integrating new scientific sensors and instruments for specific missions to keep the sub at the forefront of ocean exploration and discovery, and designing and building new parts during each overhaul. Along with Alvin, NDSF operates remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Jason, and autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) Sentry for the ocean science community.

Verification testing dives on Alvin are scheduled to begin in the Puerto Rico trench in September 2021.


The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate an understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. WHOI’s pioneering discoveries stem from an ideal combination of science and engineering—one that has made it one of the most trusted and technically advanced leaders in basic and applied ocean research and exploration anywhere. WHOI is known for its multidisciplinary approach, superior ship operations, and unparalleled deep-sea robotics capabilities. We play a leading role in ocean observation, and operate the most extensive suite of data-gathering platforms in the world. Top scientists, engineers, and students collaborate on more than 800 concurrent projects worldwide—both above and below the waves—pushing the boundaries of knowledge and possibility. For more information, please visit

OSU Assumes Cyberinfrastructure Responsibility for OOI

October 5, 2020

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and Oregon State University (OSU) jointly announced that OSU will assume responsibilities for the systems management of the cyberinfrastructure that makes data transmission for the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI) possible through September of 2023.  OSU was awarded this role after a systematic and thorough selection process. Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, has provided OOI’s Cyberinfrastructure systems management since 2014, and will leave the OOI Program in 2021 following a transition period with OSU.

The OOI consists of five instrumented observatories in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans outfitted with more than 800 instruments that continually collect and deliver data to shore via a cyberinfrastructure, which makes the data available to anyone with an Internet connection. The demands on the cyberinfrastructure are great, as it stores 73 billion rows of data, and has provided 36 terabytes of data in response to 189 million user requests since 2014.  With the data requests and delivery demands increasing each year, the OOI has the capability to provide data that allows inquiries into episodic ecosystem events in real-time, as well as investigations using long-term time series data. The OOI is made possible through a funded five-year cooperative agreement to WHOI from the National Science Foundation. The OSU award is for $6 million over a three-year period.

“We are delighted that OSU has the capabilities and expertise to take on this hugely important task,” says John Trowbridge, Principal Investigator of the Program Management Office of the OOI at WHOI. “The OOI has become a dependable source of real-time ocean data, helping scientists answer pressing questions about the changing ocean.  Educators use real-time ocean data to teach students about the fundamentals of oceanography, the global carbon cycle, climate variability, and other important topics.  The team at OSU will help advance this work and ensure that OOI data are served reliably to an ever-growing audience.

“We are also extremely grateful to the Rutgers team for the excellent foundation they established over the past six years that will allow a seamless transition to the OSU cyberinfrastructure team. Rutgers was an important partner that helped establish OOI as a reliable data provider,” adds Trowbridge.

“OSU brings the perfect mix of hardware, software, and ocean data experts to ensure that we are able to store and serve up this gargantuan amount of important ocean data,” adds Anthony Koppers, Principal Investigator for the OSU Cyberinfrastructure Systems Team. “We have the key personnel and systems in place that will allow us to seamlessly take on the challenge of storing and serving OOI data, strategically planning for future data demands and implementing cybersecurity. We also will be working hand-in-hand with the OOI’s Data Management Team to ensure the data meets the highest quality standards.”

OSU’s cyberinfrastructure will handle telemetered, recovered, and streaming data.  Telemetered data are delivered to the cyberinfrastructure from moorings and gliders using remote access such as satellites.  Recovered data are complete datasets that are retrieved and uploaded to the cyberinfrastructure once an ocean observing platform is recovered from the field.  Streaming data are delivered in real time directly from instruments in the field.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate an understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. WHOI’s pioneering discoveries stem from an ideal combination of science and engineering—one that has made it one of the most trusted and technically advanced leaders in basic and applied ocean research and exploration anywhere. WHOI is known for its multidisciplinary approach, superior ship operations, and unparalleled deep-sea robotics capabilities. We play a leading role in ocean observation, and operate the most extensive suite of data-gathering platforms in the world. Top scientists, engineers, and students collaborate on more than 800 concurrent projects worldwide—both above and below the waves—pushing the boundaries of knowledge and possibility. For more information, please visit

WHOI Announces D’Works Marine Technology Initiative for Massachusetts Startups and Entrepreneurs

August 26, 2020

Massachusetts has long been known as a center of invention and technical innovation and, more recently, has gained attention for its vibrant marine robotics startup community. Now startup companies, entrepreneurs, and others in the Commonwealth who work in the marine robotics and related technologies sector, including artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, will have a new partner to help them develop products and technologies and bring their ideas to market.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (MassTech) are teaming up to make WHOI’s unique mix of resources available through the D’Works Marine Technology Initiative to accelerate the pace of marine technology innovation.

“Our goal is to help move ideas from the concept stage to at-sea operations as efficiently as possible,” said James Bellingham, Director of WHOI’s Center for Marine Robotics (CMR). “To do this, we’re making WHOI’s specialized facilities and expertise available to the entrepreneurial community.”

The Innovation Institute at MassTech  has seeded the D’Works Innovation Fund via CMR for qualified companies to access WHOI facilities, as well as technical and engineering support, building on a previous $5 million grant to support the construction of DunkWorks Advanced Manufacturing and Rapid Prototyping Center and several other new test facilities at WHOI. Applications will be accepted beginning August 26 on a rolling basis through the fall, with the first awards expected to be announced by September 30.

“WHOI’s work at the leading edge of oceanographic research is based on a combination of deep understanding of the ocean and how it works,” said WHOI Deputy Director and Vice President for Research Rick Murray. “WHOI is pleased to work with the MassTech to support the growth of marine robotics, AI, and related technologies that will benefit from WHOI’s state-of-the-art testing facilities. In turn, we expect that marine research will also advance through the innovative ideas tested by entrepreneurs.”

“The funding for the D’Works initiative will expand access to WHOI’s world-class facilities, helping grow new startups and further strengthening our state’s position as the number one region in the world for marine and blue tech innovation,” added Carolyn Kirk, Executive Director of MassTech. “What sets Massachusetts apart is not only our top R&D facilities, but also the talented researchers and innovators that can help entrepreneurs grow their business.”

 D’Works funding is intended to support the use of critical fabrication and testing equipment and facilities by startups, entrepreneurs and innovators to develop marketable robotic devices, vehicles, AI, or sensors for use in the marine environment. Available WHOI facilities include the DunkWorks Advanced Manufacturing and Rapid Prototyping Center, WHOI’s advanced pressure test and calibration facilities, the Iselin Marine Facility and test well, and WHOI’s skilled carpentry, electrical, and mechanical staff.

Accepted D’Works Innovators are not limited to shore-based testing. Through the program, startups may also make use of WHOI’s coastal research vessel Tioga and small boat fleet, scientific dive program, and offshore infrastructure at the Martha’s Vineyard Coastal Observatory. Applicants may also implement and test technologies at other WHOI facilities, or apply for membership in the CMR DunkWorks Program.

“Our ideal applicant has a prototype for what they believe to be a working technology in the pre-scaling stage,” said Leslie Ann McGee, CMR assistant director. “This fund is for those innovators or technologists who need access to facilities like we have at WHOI but don’t have the funding for a larger, traditional project at WHOI.”

To apply, Massachusetts-based applicants must submit a proposal outlining specific project milestones and demonstrate how modest funding will advance those goals from a technological and marketing standpoint. Minority and women-owned companies are encouraged to apply. More information is available at

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Mass., dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930 on a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate a basic understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. For more information, please visit

Key Takeaways

  • Massachusetts startups and entrepreneurs may apply for funding to test and develop new marine products and technologies through the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s D’Works Marine Technology Initiative.
  • Funding from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative’s Innovation Institute will provide vouchers that can be used to access WHOI facilities, boats, engineering expertise, and technical support.
  • Applications from qualified companies will be initially accepted beginning August 26 on a rolling basis through the fall, and the first awards announced by September 30.
  • More information is available at

WHOI Scientists Make Woods Hole Film Festival Appearance

July 17, 2020

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) scientists appear in two shorts and a feature film at this year’s Woods Hole Film Festival (WHFF). In addition, scientists will also participate in Q&A sessions connected to three of the festival’s feature-length, ocean-themed entries.

The short films, “Divergent Warmth” and “Beyond the Gulf Stream” are part of a program titled “The Blue Between Us,” offered on-demand from July 25 to August 1 as part of the festival’s virtual program.

In “Divergent Warmth,” producer-director Megan Lubetkin gives viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the synchronized ballet aboard a research vessel during a recent expedition to the East Pacific Rise. Experimental music provides rhythm to imagery of deck operations, launch and recovery of the human-occupied submersible Alvin, and other-worldly views of seafloor hydrothermal vents and lava flows. Interwoven throughout is an evocative reading of Adrienne Rich’s poem, “Diving into the Wreck.”

Dan Fornari, a WHOI emeritus research scholar, acted as associate producer of the 10-minute film. As one of the scientists on the December 2019 expedition, he invited Lubetkin, herself a scientist and the creative exhibits coordinator with the Ocean Exploration Trust, to assist with subsea camera operations and video data management on board. Lubetkin spent her free time shooting additional video, which she edited together while still on the ship to produce a first draft of “Divergent Warmth.”

“I was blown away. It was just fabulous,” Fornari said of his first viewing. “It captures the spirit of going out to sea and being involved in this exploratory effort in the alien realm, where very few people get to go.”

The complex winter currents that collide off the coast of Cape Hatteras are the focus of “Beyond the Gulf Stream,” a short documentary by the Georgia-based production company MADLAWMEDIA. Filmed aboard the WHOI-operated research vessel Neil Armstrong, the 10-minute film features WHOI physical oceanographers Magdalena Andres, Glen Gawarkiewicz, and graduate student Jacob Forsyth as they share their perspectives on the challenges and rewards of doing scientific research at sea, often in difficult conditions.

“I think we have a responsibility to communicate science and the process of doing of science to the public,” said Andres about the film, which was produced in collaboration with WHOI and the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography at the University of Georgia. “It does a really nice job of capturing life at sea in the wintertime.”

As a scientist who uses video to capture data from the ocean depths, Fornari is highly attuned to the impact that visual media can have in capturing the public’s imagination about the ocean.

“These kinds of artistic expressions help open doors to people’s minds.” he said. “That’s crucial for getting the public to understand how critically important the oceans are. Then maybe more students will say, ‘I want to be an ocean scientist when I grow up.’”

In addition to the shorts program itself, WHOI scientists, staff, and students will also participate in “Filmmaker Chats” open to the public and broadcast via Zoom, as well as the WHFF Facebook and YouTube channels. Maddux-Lawrence will take questions about “Beyond the Gulf Stream” on Sunday, July 19, beginning at 9:00 a.m. On Friday, July 31 at 9:00 a.m., Lubetkin will appear with Fornari, as well as Alvin pilot Drew Bewley, MIT-WHOI Joint Program graduate student Lauren Dykman, and Texas A&M graduate student Charlie Holmes II to discuss the making of and science behind “Divergent Warmth.” Recordings of both sessions will also be available for viewing afterward on the festival website.

In addition to the short films, WHOI whale biologist Michael Moore appears in the feature-length documentary “Entangled,” which looks at the intertwined plights of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale and coastal fishing communities in New England and eastern Canada. After being hunted for centuries, the whales face new challenges in the form of climate change and increased fishing and shipping activity, and Moore has been an outspoken proponent of the need for increased protections to stave off their slide to extinction within the next 20 years.

WHOI scientists will also add their perspective to Q&A sessions following several ocean-themed, feature-length films selected for the festival:

  • Thursday, July 30, at 10:00 p.m.: Research specialist Hauke Kite-Powell will answer questions related to aquaculture and seafood in relation to the film “Fish & Men.
  • Saturday, August 1, from 4:00 to 5:00 p.m.: Marine chemist Chris Reddy will answer questions about microplastics in relation to the film “Microplastics Madness.”
  • Saturday, August 1, from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m.: Marine biologist Simon Thorrold will answer questions about marine protected areas and fishing in connection with the film “Current Sea.”

Key Takeaways

  • Films featuring WHOI scientists will be screened as part of “The Blue Between Us” shorts program at the virtual Woods Hole Film Festival, which may be viewed online by festival passholders and individual ticketholders during the festival, which runs from Saturday, July 25, to Saturday, August 1. Tickets and more information is available here.
  • Whale biologist Michael Moore will appear in the feature-length film “Entangled” about the plight of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.
  • WHOI scientists will also participate in Q&A sessions associated with several ocean-themed, feature-length festival films.
  • More information is available on the festival website.

WHOI researcher dives to Challenger Deep

June 26, 2020

Ying-Tsong Lin is the 12th person in history and the first person of Asian descent to visit ocean’s deepest seafloor

A Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution researcher became one of just a handful of people to visit the deepest part of the ocean following a successful dive in the deep-submergence vehicle Limiting Factor on Monday.

Ying-Tsong “Y.T.” Lin, a scientist with WHOI’s Ocean Acoustics & Signals Lab, traveled to the central pool of Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, a depth of 10.9 kilometers (6.8 miles), with Victor Vescovo, the pilot and founder of Caladan Oceanic. As a Taiwanese-American, Dr. Lin’s dive marked the first time a person of Asian descent had traveled to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. This record-setting dive was among a series of history-making expeditions that Vescovo piloted this month, including dives by the first woman, former astronaut Kathy Sullivan, and by Kelly Walsh, the son of Don Walsh, who, with Jacques Piccard, made the first-ever dive to the Mariana Trench in 1960.

“The sub Limiting Factor is a space-time capsule bringing us to another world, which has not been touched for millions years,” Dr. Lin wrote in an email from the ship following his 10-hour dive. “Looking at the sand waves on the bottom of the world, thinking how long it took for the weak currents at that depth to build them up, space and time just collapsed; I was watching a million years of evolution in just an instant. What I saw down there makes me feel how insignificant I am. I would like to share this opportunity to understand life better with all my friends and colleagues who helped make it possible.”

As part of Caladan Oceanic’s multidisciplinary Ring of Fire expedition, Dr. Lin is conducting an acoustic experiment aboard the submersible’s support ship, Pressure Drop, to determine how sound waves propagate in the deepest parts of the ocean. Because of the pressure at extreme depths, the increased density of water causes changes in the speed of sound, which need to be carefully accounted for to ensure the accuracy of deep-water acoustic instruments.

With a specialized hydrophone recorder provided by the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory deployed in Challenger Deep, Dr. Lin successfully recorded ambient sound as well as acoustic signals transmitted from an underwater speaker deployed near the ocean surface from the ship. In addition to improving scientists’ understanding of how sound refracts in the deep ocean, Dr. Lin’s shipboard experiments will provide greater clarity on how acoustic communication and geo-location could be improved at extreme depths.

“We are so pleased to have partnered with Y.-T. and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on this dive and showing the access we can provide to any individual who wants to regularly and reliably visit any point on the ocean floor,” said Vescovo after the dive.

Dr. Lin is the first WHOI scientist to visit Challenger Deep in-person, but the institution has a history of conducting research at the ocean’s greatest depths. In 2009, WHOI scientists and engineers sent the hybrid remotely operated vehicle Nereus to Challenger Deep, making it just the third vehicle in history to reach a depth of over 10,900 meters. In addition, following James Cameron’s solo dive to Challenger Deep in 2012, the Canadian explorer and director donated his submersible DeepSea Challenger to WHOI so that engineers could document and redeploy some of the technology he and his team developed. These technologies have been incorporated into the autonomous underwater vehicle Orpheus, currently awaiting deep-sea trials.

At WHOI, Dr. Lin is best known for his work on three-dimensional ocean acoustic technologies that help scientists explore the ocean through sound. He lives in Falmouth, Mass., with his wife and sons.

Key Takeaways

  • Ying-Tsong Lin is the 12th person in history, as well as the first Taiwanese-American and the first person of Asian descent to travel to the deepest part of the ocean, the Challenger Deep.
  • Lin and pilot Victor Vescovo visited the central pool of the Mariana Trench, at a depth of 10.9 kilometers (6.8 miles) aboard the deep-submergence vehicle Limiting Factor.
  • Lin is an acoustic scientist who is studying how sound propagates in the ocean.
  • The research conducted during the dive, and in Dr. Lin’s shipboard experiments, will lead to increased understanding of sound refraction in the ocean and how acoustic communication and geo-location may be improved at extreme ocean depths.

Ocean explorer and filmmaker James Cameron to host virtual event on Extreme Ocean Machines

May 18, 2020

Discussion with experts on ocean technology, exploration, and storytelling

On May 20, ocean explorer and world-renowned filmmaker James Cameron will host a special edition of Ocean Encounters, a popular virtual event series from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Viewers of this special event, titled Extreme Ocean Machines: Exploring Impossible Places, will have opportunities to submit questions to Cameron and a panel of leading experts in submersible technologies, ocean exploration, and storytelling.

Cameron was the first person to reach the bottom of the Mariana Trench—the deepest known point on Earth at 11 km (6.8 miles) below the ocean surface—as a solo pilot in a one-man submersible, on 25 March 2012. Aptly named after the deepest part of the trench called Challenger Deep, the innovative, vertical DEEPSEA CHALLENGER submersible and science platform is a “cross between a torpedo and a hot rod painted Kawasaki racing green,” as Cameron has described it. He donated the submersible to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 2013.

Cameron will lead a conversation on the revolutionary technologies that are empowering new generations of explorers, scientists, and storytellers on the high seas. The discussion will focus on how extraordinary machines—from ships and subs to autonomous robots and always-on sensors—are taking humans to never-before-seen places and teaching us about the amazing world beneath the waves.

Guests include:

  • Mark Dalio, Founder and Creative Director, OceanX
  • Orla Doherty, Producer of the BBC’s groundbreaking Blue Planet II television series
  • Andrew Bowen, Principal Engineer and Director of the National Deep Submergence Facility at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
  • Vincent Pieribone, Vice Chairman of OceanX and Director of the John B. Pierce Laboratory at Yale University

Date: Wednesday, May 20, 2020 7:30 – 8:30pm EDT

Title: Extreme Ocean MachinesExploring Impossible Places

Free registration is required and space is limited.

Register now at

<a href="">» Download flyer</a> » Download flyer

What did scientists learn from Deepwater Horizon?

April 20, 2020

Paper reviews major findings, technological advances that could help in next deep-sea spill. 

Ten years ago, a powerful explosion destroyed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and injuring 17 others. Over a span of 87 days, the Deepwater Horizon well released an estimated 168 million gallons of oil and 45 million gallons of natural gas into the ocean, making it the largest accidental marine oil spill in history.

Researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) quickly mobilized to study the unprecedented oil spill, investigating its effects on the seafloor and deep-sea corals and tracking dispersants used to clean up the spill.

In a review paper published in the journal Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, WHOI marine geochemists Elizabeth Kujawinski and Christopher Reddy review what they— and their science colleagues from around the world—have learned from studying the spill over the past decade.

“So many lessons were learned during the Deepwater Horizon disaster that it seemed appropriate and timely to consider those lessons in the context of a review,” says Kujawinski. “We found that much good work had been done on oil weathering and oil degradation by microbes, with significant implications for future research and response activities.”

“At the end of the day, this oil spill was a huge experiment,” adds Reddy. “It shed great light on how nature responds to an uninvited guest. One of the big takeaways is that the oil doesn’t just float and hang around. A huge amount of oil that didn’t evaporate was pummeled by sunlight, changing its chemistry. That’s something that wasn’t seen before, so now we have insight into this process.”

Released for the first time in a deep ocean oil spill, chemical dispersants remain one of the most controversial debates in the aftermath of Deepwater Horizon. Studies offer conflicting conclusions about whether dispersants released in the deep sea reduced the amount of oil that reached the ocean surface, and the results are ambiguous about whether dispersants helped microbes break down the oil at all.

“I think the biggest unknowns still center on the impact of dispersants on oil distribution in seawater and their role in promoting—or inhibiting—microbial degradation of the spilled oil,” says Kujawinski, whose lab was the first to identify the chemical signature of the dispersants, making it possible to track in the marine environment.

Though the authors caution that the lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon release may not be applicable to all spills, the review highlights advances in oil chemistry, microbiology, and technology that may be useful at other deep-sea drilling sites and shipping lanes in the Arctic. The authors call on the research community to work collaboratively to understand the complex environmental responses at play in cold climates, where the characteristics of oil are significantly different from the Gulf of Mexico.

“Now we have a better sense of what we need to know,” Kujawinski says. “Understanding what these environments look like in their natural state is really critical to understanding the impact of oil spill conditions.”

Additional authors of the review are chemist Ryan P. Rodgers (Florida State University), and microbiologists J. Cameron Thrash (University of Southern California, Los Angeles), David L. Valentine (University of California Santa Barbara), and Helen K. White (Haverford College).


Funding for this review was provided by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, the Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine Gulf Research Program, and the National Science Foundation.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Mass., dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930 on a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate a basic understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. For more information, please visit

Key Takeaways

  • Some coastal ecosystems around the Gulf of Mexico recovered, but in areas such as deep-sea coral communities, the oil, gas and dispersants combined with other stressors to create long-lasting impacts.
  • Gene analysis tools, used on a wide scale for the first time, provided unprecedented insights into which microbes consumed oil, gas and dispersants in marine ecosystems.
  • Advanced chemical analysis showed for the first time that weathering on the ocean surface, particularly by sunlight and oxygen (photo-oxidation), changed the composition of oil but reduced the effectiveness of dispersants applied to the surface.
  • The spill science community can be most effective by working collaboratively across academia, industry and government in the event of future oil releases in the deep sea and high latitudes.

SeaWorld & Busch Gardens conservation fund commits $900,000 to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales

November 14, 2019

The SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund announced that it has committed $900,000 over the next three years in the fight to save the critically endangered North Atlantic Right Whale.  The announcement was made by Dr. Michael Moore of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, alongside Dr. Hendrik Nollens, Corporate Vice President of Animal Health and Welfare at SeaWorld and President of the SeaWorld Conservation Fund, during yesterday’s 2019 Ropeless Consortium meeting, an annual summit to help protect marine animals, at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.

The funding provided by the SeaWorld Conservation Fund will be primarily used to test alternative non-lethal fishing gear.  Whales and sea turtles commonly entangle in ropes that connect crab or lobster traps on the sea floor to buoys on the sea surface. These ropes allow fishermen to haul their traps to the sea surface, and the buoy allows fishermen to locate gear.   Removing this end line from trap and pot fishing gear will significantly reduce or even eliminate entanglements. There are promising prototypes available for evaluation by scientists, regulators and fishermen, but few resources for proper testing of these systems. Support by the SeaWorld Conservation Fund will be used to evaluate the cost, the operational impact to the fishermen and the safety for the whales, as well as advance public awareness of the issues.

“This commitment by the SeaWorld Conservation Fund is absolutely vital in helping protect this iconic species,” says Moore. “The North Atlantic right whale lives mostly in a highly urbanized ocean, where ship strikes and fishing gear entanglement is a constant concern.  We must find a way for whales, turtles and other species vulnerable to entanglement to coexist with sustainable seafood harvests.”

“SeaWorld is committed to marine education and conservation and our partnership with SeaWorld will enable much greater public awareness of the huge conservation and animal welfare concern that entanglement represents,” he adds. “This awareness will hopefully swing the balance towards educated seafood consumers being willing to pay the premium that whale friendly harvesting techniques will likely need.”

Entanglements in trap and pot fishing gear are a serious threat to many endangered whales and sea turtles, and North Atlantic right whales are most heavily affected, and some of the world’s most critically endangered marine animals.  The species is in its seventh consecutive year of decline, with only about 411 whales left.  Approximately 85 percent of all North Atlantic right whales bear scars from being entangled in fishing gear at least once in their lives, and over 50 percent have been entangled at least twice.   Eighty-two percent of documented North Atlantic right whale mortality is attributable to fishing gear entanglements.

Proposed buoyless alternative to traditional rope system. Trap is acoustically located, identified and retrieved. Illustration by Natalie Renier, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

“In precolonial times, North Atlantic right whales were a relatively common sight on the East Coast, but today the very existence of the entire species is at risk: fewer than 100 reproductively-active females remain in a population of approximately 411 whales total,” Moore explains.

“The New England Aquarium has long recognized that the least risky fishing method for whales is one that removes ropes from the water column. We applaud WHOI’s commitment to ropeless fishing as a potential solution for avoiding the extinction of the North Atlantic right whale,” says Tim Werner, Senior Scientist, Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium.

SeaWorld’s Nollens adds, “The Fund is dedicated to helping species in need, and we are proud to partner with Dr. Moore and his team on this critical initiative.  The plight of the North Atlantic right whale is yet another symptom of man’s impact on the very same ocean on which a large and growing part of the U.S. economy relies.  Time is running out but it is our hope to be a key partner in saving this species.”



About the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund

Since its inception in 2003, the Fund has granted over $17.5 million to more than 1,200 projects with 81 organizations in 70 countries around the world.  Its grantees, or benefactors, include world-renowned conservation organizations such as World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, Wilderness Foundation Africa, the Panamerican Conservation Association and The Audubon Society.  In addition, the Fund supports lesser-known grassroots groups who are committed to protecting and preserving their local communities. The Fund also receives donations from in-park guests, community friends, individual donors and corporate partners.  SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment covers all administrative costs for the Fund, enabling 100 percent of all incoming donations to go directly to conservation.  Learn more at


About WHOI

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Mass., dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930 on a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, its primary mission is to understand the oceans and their interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate a basic understanding of the oceans’ role in the changing global environment. For more information, please visit

Basking shark

SharkCam reveals secret lives of basking sharks in UK

August 6, 2019

Underwater footage captured by the REMUS SharkCam observing the behavior of basking sharks off the west coast of Scotland. (Credit: Amy Kukulya, @oceanrobotcam, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

An autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) known as the REMUS SharkCam has been used in the UK for the first time to observe the behavior of basking sharks in the Inner Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland.

The groundbreaking technology, designed and built by the Oceanographic Systems Laboratory at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), is set to reveal the secret lives of the world’s second largest fish—a species that little is known about, despite being prevalent in the region’s waters.

The research team, which included colleagues from the University of Exeter, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Sky Ocean Rescue, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), hope the stunning images captured by the AUV will strengthen the case for creating the world’s first protected area for basking sharks in this part of the sea.

The team used SharkCam to track sharks once they were tagged and disappeared beneath the water’s surface. The robot collects wide-angle, high definition video of their behaviour from a distance, as well as high quality oceanographic data, such as ocean temperature, salinity, biological productivity and bathymetry, which shows how far the sharks are off the bottom of the seafloor.

The REMUS SharkCam is programmed to follow a specially designed tag placed on a shark and can forward predict where the animal will go and follow along at a safe distance. (Photo: Amy Kukulya, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Initial footage from the innovative SharkCam deployed off the coast of Coll and Tiree last month shows the sharks moving through the water column, potentially searching for food, feeding near the surface and swimming close to the seafloor.

It is hoped that further analysis of the many hours of video footage from the AUV, as well as visuals from towed camera tags attached to the sharks and the deployment of advanced sonar imaging, will uncover even more about the underwater behavior, social interactions, group behavior and courtship of the elusive species.

“Every time we deploy REMUS SharkCam, we learn something new about the species we are studying,” said WHOI Research Engineer Amy Kukulya and SharkCam Principal Investigator. “We’re able to remove the ocean’s opaque layer and dive into places never before possible with this groundbreaking technology, answering questions about key species and revealing new ones.”

Fieldwork for the project took place in July in the proposed Sea of the Hebrides Marine Protected Area (MPA) – one of four possible MPAs currently under consultation by the Scottish Government. MPAs are specially designated and managed to protect marine ecosystems, habitats and species, which can help restore the area for people and wildlife.

Dr. Matthew Witt from the University of Exeter, and Amy Kukulya, research engineer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), prepare equipment before deploying an underwater robot camera to follow a tagged basking shark. (Photo: WWF/Jane Morgan)

The area is one of only a few worldwide where large numbers of basking sharks are found feeding in the surface waters each year. It is suspected that basking sharks may even breed in Scotland—an event that has never before been captured on film.

“Our seas and coasts are home to some incredible wildlife,” said Dr. Jenny Oates, WWF SEAS Programme Manager. “As our oceans come under increasing pressure, innovative technology like the REMUS SharkCam can reveal our underwater world like never before and help to show why it must be protected. It is essential that we safeguard our seas, not just to enable magnificent species like basking sharks to thrive, but because all life on earth depends on our oceans.”

Footage gathered by the REMUS SharkCam technology will help support and promote basking shark conservation work by demonstrating how important this area is for the life cycle of the species, adding weight to the case for the MPA designation and providing a better understanding of measures which might help protect this iconic species and its habitat.

The REMUS SharkCam technology—owned and operated by WHOI—was originally developed to track great white sharks, but has been adapted to also be able to track sea turtles, smaller sharks and now basking sharks. The ‘smart’ AUV is programmed to follow a specially designed tag placed on a shark and can forward predict where the animal will go and follow along at a safe distance. The special acoustic bio-logger tag trails slightly behind the attachment point at the base of the main dorsal fin and can remain on sharks for the duration of a mission. The SharkCam tags are fitted with a three-tiered release technology and communication system, which allows researchers to find and collect the tags after they have detached from the sharks recovering more data about the animals behavior.

The project was funded by WHOI, WWF, Sky Ocean Rescue, SNH, and the University of Exeter. Additional support came from Sea World Busch Gardens Conservation Fund and Hydroid Inc.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Mass., dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930 on a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, its primary mission is to understand the oceans and their interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate a basic understanding of the oceans’ role in the changing global environment. For more information, please visit


Additional quotes for media:

Dr. Suzanne Henderson, Marine Policy and Advice Officer at SNH, who has worked on the basking shark tagging and research project run by SNH and the University of Exeter since 2012, said: “These giant fish are spectacular and watching them feed gracefully at the sea surface is such a special and memorable experience.

“This year’s collaboration has allowed us to use a combination of camera technologies and given us a glimpse of basking sharks’ underwater behaviour – a real first and very exciting. The footage has already made us reassess their behaviour, with the sharks appearing to spend much more time swimming just above the seabed than we previously thought.

“It really brings home why it’s so important that the species and its habitat are protected by designating the Sea of the Hebrides as a Marine Protected Area.”

Dr. Matthew Witt, of the University of Exeter, said: “This year saw the culmination of a decade of work at Exeter to support the conservation of this species. In collaboration with SNH, we have deployed state of the art equipment over several years to learn of the behaviours of these elusive animals.

“This year, our collaborative efforts expand with exciting new partners, to bring advanced video techniques to help reveal even greater detail on the underwater lives of these animals. Our efforts and resulting information highlight why the proposed MPA is important for securing a more positive conservation future for this iconic Scottish species.”

Oceanus Magazine

Methane seep

Microbial Methane – New Fuel for Ocean Robots?

March 8, 2021

Microbial Methane – New Fuel for Ocean Robots?

By Evan Lubofsky

Methane seep A seep of methane bubbles up from the seafloor. (Photo by NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research)

Imagine if the same marine microbes we study with ocean robots and autonomous underwater vehicles(AUVs) could help power those same vehicles?

Researchers at WHOI and Harvard University are working on it. They’re collaborating with Maritime Applied Physics Corporation (MAPC) — which is leading the effort with support from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) — on an energy harvesting platform that extracts methane produced by microbes and converts it to electricity. The system could be an answer to power-hungry robots that are being asked to explore increasingly larger swaths of the ocean.

“Deep sea microbes make tons of methane each year” says WHOI adjunct scientist and Harvard professor Peter Girguis. “So, we’re developing these harvesting systems that can be deployed above methane seeps to see if we can generate electricity from this methane.”

When it comes to powering AUVs—or other underwater ocean technologies for that matter—methane is an ideal choice given its abundance. It’s also free, and tends to hang around.

“It’s a crazy stable molecule,” says Girguis. “You can put it in a glass vial, and thousands of years later it will still be methane.”

Peter Girguis WHOI adjunct scientist and Harvard professor Peter Girguis (Photo courtesy of Harvard University)

It is, however, a potent greenhouse gas—the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggests that methane has a heattrapping power 25 times greater than CO2. But fortunately, very little of it ever leaves the ocean, thanks to the expansive communities of marine microbes that eat it.

Using methane to give ocean robots a power boost may sound like sci-fi, but it may be closer than you think. A prototype of what the researchers refer to as a ‘seafloor generator’ is being built for testing later this year. It’s roughly the size of a large dorm room fridge, and when deployed, sits above methane seeps bubbling up from the seafloor. As the gas bubbles enter the system, a device recovers the methane through a membrane. The new device is being developed by MAPC, in conjunction with Girguis and WHOI scientist Anna Michel, who has been collaborating with Girguis since 2013.

“We utilize similar approaches for in situ chemical sensing of methane and carbon dioxide,” says Michel. “We extract gases from seawater and then measure them using infrared spectroscopy or mass spectrometry. These instruments require much less gas than we aim to use here. In my own lab, we’re especially interested in finding ways to power sensors underwater. So, working with WHOI Engineer Jason Kapit, we are investigating ways to scale up our extraction processes.”

Once the methane is in gas form, the system combusts the gas to drive an engine and generator. This is a common approach to converting chemical energy from the gas to electrical energy, but this would be the first time it’s been done on the seafloor for re-charging vehicles and powering sensors.

“The exhaust gases produced are cooled and recirculated back to the inlet of the generator,” explains Tom Bein, a principal engineer with MAPC. This novel approach, he says, minimizes the power required by the system which maximizes the energy available to recharge AUVs or to power sensor networks.

Seafloor Generator The seafloor generator, depicted here, is designed to continuously generate one kilowatt of power from methane seeps—enough power to recharge AUVs on long-endurance missions without having to resurface. (Illustration by MAPC)

From Girguis’ perspective, the new system will help address a key question that’s been lingering over the ocean science community for decades: How do we sustain our presence in the deep sea? The need for AUVs, for example, to travel over longer distances—and longer time periods—without having to surface to charge up, is very real. Particularly in endurance-sapping applications like geologic surveys, search and rescue missions, and oil spill monitoring.

Girguis sees value in the “cabled observatories we all clamored for” but says their capabilities are limited to the regions of the seafloor that they can reach. There have been advances in battery technologies, and in low-power instrument design, that have spurred the launch of new high-endurance vehicles.  WHOI’s Long Range Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (LRAUVs), for example, areultramarathoners: they can operate continuously for more than two weeks over a distance of 620 miles (1,000 kilometers).

But Girguis says that for autonomous vehicles to reach their potential, they will ultimately need underwater charging capabilities. He refers to the concept as a “Supercharger Network”—a network of underwater charging ports that provides rapid charging for an AUV on a mission—ideally in remote and deep locations throughout the global ocean. These networks could also power underwater sensors and other instruments.

“Today, we have vehicle charging stations that make it possible for us to drive cross-country with an electric car,” says Girguis. “If I had my druthers, we’d have a supercharger highway beneath the surface that helps keep AUVs going as far as they need to.”

This work is sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) under contract number W912CG‐20‐C‐0015. The views and conclusions contained herein are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as necessarily representing the official policies or endorsements, either expressed or implied of DARPA. (Approved for Public Release, Distribution Unlimited 3/8/21)
Photo of Susan and Coleman Burke

Gift enables new investments in ocean technologies

November 7, 2020

Gift enables new investments in ocean technologies

By  | November 9, 2020

Photo of Susan and Coleman Burke Susan and Coleman Burke. Photo courtesy the Burke Foundation.

As any business knows, access to startup capital is key to staying competitive in a rapidly-shifting technological landscape. A $500,000 grant from the Coleman and Susan Burke Foundation has allowed WHOI to make crucial investments in ocean technology, a gift that will have lasting impacts on the institution’s technical and research prowess.

As a former officer in the US Navy, Coleman Burke has a particular passion for ocean exploration and technology-enhanced research at sea. After funding the R/V Neil Armstrong’s computer lab in 2016, as well as the computer lab in the LOSOS building, Burke wanted to finish these projects with a follow-up investment, says Richard Pittenger, a retired Navy admiral who now works with WHOI administration.

“Coley has a deep love of the sea, and as a passionate environmentalist, a very real commitment to the preservation of our most precious resource. We applaud the work of WHOI and we are delighted to support it,” says Susan Burke of the donation.

A picture of the new interactive display monitors A new interactive display on board the R/V Neil Armstrong shows the ship’s sensors and a view of deck operations.

One part of the funding will be immediately obvious to researchers aboard the Armstrong. Video monitors have been installed in nine locations throughout the vessel, including in the conference room. The new monitors allow users to toggle between a navigation screen, sonar and Conductivity, Temperature and Depth (CTD) sensor data, while providing video conferencing capabilities. Another upgrade, expected in 2021, will enable researchers on the ship to video conference with their colleagues on shore.

“The Burke Foundation gift opened an opportunity to significantly improve access, control, and use of the Armstrong’s sensors and cameras by a wide variety of researchers and crew from many locations throughout the ship— and even from off the ship through telepresence,” says Pittenger. “This is a first for the UNOLS research fleet, so it’ll put the Armstrong ahead of the rest.”

WHOI marine chemist Aleck Wang recovers samples from a CTD during a 2016 research cruise aboard the R/V <em>Neil Armstrong</em>, deployed along the New England Continental Shelf in the vicinity of the Ocean Observatories Initiative Pioneer Array. (Photo by Elise Hugus, UnderCurrent Productions) WHOI marine chemist Aleck Wang recovers samples from a CTD during a 2016 research cruise aboard the R/V Neil Armstrong, deployed along the New England Continental Shelf in the vicinity of the Ocean Observatories Initiative Pioneer Array. (Photo by Elise Hugus, UnderCurrent Productions)


The Burke Foundation also funded three projects making use of novel data streams from the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI). Marine geochemist Aleck Wang will use data from the Pioneer Array to examine the relationship between coastal and mid-ocean carbon dioxide fluxes along the New England continental shelf.

Using data from the Irminger Sea Array off the southern tip of Greenland, a project led by physical oceanographers Isabela LeBras and Roo Nicholson will investigate deep mixing and oxygen cycling, while Malcolm Scully will use physical and bio-optical data from the array to look into diurnal and seasonal controls on phytoplankton.

Following up on its past support of WHOI senior scientist Chris German, the Burke Foundation provided funding for an innovative technology that enables remote communication with the autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) Sentry, and potentially, a fleet of deep-sea AUVs.

In testing planned next summer on the East Pacific Rise, German’s “WaveGlider” will float on the ocean surface, using satellite communications to send commands and receive data from Sentry. German says this capability will more than double the efficiency of research vessels, which are free to travel miles away from the WaveGlider to conduct other operations.

German says the Burke Foundation’s investment is critical for providing a “proof of concept” that he can use to attract government funding.

“To understand our changing ocean in a sufficiently rapid way, we need to massively accelerate the pace with which we explore vast, unknown expanses of ocean,” says German. “Once the WaveGlider is field-proven, we expect the National Science Foundation, NOAA-Ocean Exploration, and others to take notice.”

A three-phase concept for robotics-led deep ocean exploration. A three-phase concept for increasingly sophisticated, telepresence-enabled and robotics-led deep ocean exploration using the WaveGlider platform and one or more autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). Tools & Technology R/V Neil Armstrong Ocean Observatories Initiative
the sea ahead

Sea Ahead

July 27, 2020

Sea Ahead

The game-changing ocean
technologies that will transform our
ability to understand—and manage
—Earth’s last great frontier

By Evan Lubofsky | July 27, 2020

Sea Ahead

The game-changing ocean

technologies that will transform

our ability to understand

—and manage—Earth’s

last great frontier

By Evan Lubofsky | July 27, 2020

Illustration by Natalie Renier, WHOI Creative, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The palm tree was a peculiar sight. In many respects, it was identical to countless other coconut palms collaring the turquoise lagoon. But this one stood out: Empty food cans were nailed up along its curved stem at three different, yet evenly-spaced, heights. Like a try-your-luck beanbag game at a carnival.

But on that hot July afternoon in 1946, there was no time for fun. The first in a series of nuclear bomb detonations was hours away from dropping on Bikini Atoll—a low-lying slice of paradise in the Marshall Islands—during the post-World War II weapons testing campaign known as Operation Crossroads.

WHOI scientists were standing by. They had come to Bikini to learn more about atomic explosions and the ocean—from above and below the surface.

They were particularly interested in studying the height of waves generated by the blasts.  But there was one small problem: wave-height sensors and tide gauges didn’t exist yet.

So, WHOI engineer Allyn Vine (for which the famed submersible Alvin was named) had an idea to nail empty bean cans to palm trees on Bikini and surrounding islands. Those cans would act as tide gauges by trapping seawater and sediment deposited by the basal surge of the explosion.

An ocean tech revolution

Bean cans may have been a crude-but-ingenious answer to a science problem in 1946, but today they are emblematic of the tight partnership shared between ocean scientists and engineers.

Monitoring instruments—and ocean technologies in general—have come a long way since the bean can. We now have Artificial Intelligence (AI)-enabled robots that not only allow researchers to access the most remote spots in the ocean, but can decide where to explore once they get there. New types of underwater vehicles mimic the weird and exotic animals they’re studying in the ocean twilight zone, a shadowy layer just beneath the sunlit surface between 200 to 1,000 meters. And aerial drones measure whales and seals in their natural habitats without scientists ever having to touch them.

It may seem the future of ocean technology is already here, but according to WHOI chief technology strategist Chuck Sears, we’ve only scratched the surface.

“Right now, we’re on the cusp of a number of fundamental technological breakthroughs that will be game-changing for oceanography,” says Sears. “Decades from now, I don’t think the ocean technology landscape will look anything like it does today.”

Bikini archive To monitor wave heights on Bikini Atoll during Operation Crossroads in 1946, WHOI scientist Allyn Vine devised a crude but effective solution: He nailed empty tin cans to palm trees at various heights. (Photo courtesy of WHOI Archives)

Always on, always connected

The sun was slowly sinking over Boston’s Charles River on an early June evening in 2019, when a trio of tiny ocean robots was unleashed into the water. As darkness set in, the robots began cruising the river. Unlike most ocean robots that run their missions independent of one another, these robots were using acoustic communications to explore together

“We put strobe lights on the robots so we could see them moving in sync through the water—it was pretty amazing to watch,” says WHOI engineer Erin Fischell, who is on her own mission to replace larger and expensive underwater robots with swarms of smaller robots that work cooperatively. The goal, she says, is to get a fleet of tiny robots deployed for less cost than one or two larger and more complex robots. 

WHOI biologist Tim Shank says this concept fits squarely into deep-sea exploration—particularly in the Hadal Zone, the deepest part of the ocean reaching 11,000 meters. With a total area roughly five times the state of Texas, the Hadal Zone is considered the least explored place on Earth. 

Shank wants to change that. He, along with WHOI lead engineer Casey Machado and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has developed a bright-orange ocean robot named Orpheus—the first in a new class of lightweight, low-cost autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). Orpheus can withstand the pressure of the ocean’s greatest depths, and can explore independently or as a networked “fleet.” 

Orpheus is a key component of our HADEX hadal exploration program,” says Shank. “In the future, I can envision twenty or more of these low-cost robots exploring hadal trenches cooperatively.”

This concept feeds into a long-range vision for what WHOI senior scientist Dennis McGillicuddy calls a networked ocean. He says the digital ocean ecosystem of the future will rely on an integrated network of underwater vehicles, sensors, and communications systems that will cover the ocean in an “always on, always connected” way.  

“A networked ocean will connect individual vehicles and instruments, and provide real-time information about what’s happening in the ocean, much like the National Weather Service,” says McGillicuddy.  

Heterogenous “swarms” of robots are in the mix, but other advances round out the picture. McGillicuddy says ocean observing systems like the Pioneer array, which tracks the shelf break front south of New England, and the OSNAP array, which tracks Atlantic Ocean circulation, will span the global ocean and beam data back to scientists via acoustic, optical, and satellite communications. There will also be a trend towards “data mule” type vehicles on the surface that receive data from AUVs below and beam the information up to satellites to transmit to laboratories on shore. And, fixed docking stations will be deployed in the open ocean that allow ocean vehicles to offload data and power up before heading to their next exploration site. 

“Decades from now, I don’t think the ocean technology landscape will look anything like it does today.”
—Chuck Sears, WHOI chief technology strategist

colored Atlantis photo Scientists deploy an instrument off the deck of the Atlantis in October 1952. (Photo by Jan Hahn, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) Orpheus Orpheus, an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), surfaces after one of several test dives in September 2019. (Photo by Evan Kovacs, Marine Imaging Technologies, LLC / Courtesy of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

A new nerve center

If a networked ocean is the brain stem, sensors are the cranial nerves. 

Today’s ocean sensors detect things in the water that humans can’t, giving scientists a fuller picture of ocean phenomena, whether it be the speed and direction of ocean currents, changes in seawater chemistry, carbon cycling, or biological productivity in the deep sea. 

Yet according to Jim Bellingham, director of WHOI’s Center for Marine Robotics, the oceanographic community is “massively underinvested” in sensors. The proprietary “one-off” design of certain sensors can drive costs through the roof, making it difficult or impossible for scientists to deploy quantities of them in the ocean. 

Another issue is size—some sensors are so large and bulky that they can only be transported by large remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), or towed by a ship.  

Bellingham says future ocean sensors will become increasingly compact and affordable as they take advantage of smaller and more powerful microprocessors being developed for consumer electronics. 

“You can make highly capable things that are small and low-cost, as long as you can scale out,” says Bellingham. 

Sears shares a similar view. He says ocean technologies in general have often been “exquisite and available to very few,” but feels electronics will become significantly smaller, cheaper, and more capable. 

“Eventually, it will become possible to create entire 3D ocean imaging systems that are smaller than a dime,” he says.  

That’s a far cry from some of the hefty sensors of today, like Environmental Sample Processors (ESPs) used to study harmful algal blooms. ESPs rival the size of punching bags, but thanks to smaller components, the latest generation is about half the size and deployable on a wider range of vehicles.   

“Today, we can create maps of the seafloor with amazing clarity,” says WHOI scientist Adam Soule. “But the problem is, only a very small portion of the seafloor is mapped.”
—Adam Soule, WHOI scientist

Rather than relying on just a single, larger, and more expensive underwater robot to cover an area of the ocean, ocean scientists hope to leverage hundreds or even thousands of smaller, lower-cost robots all working in sync as depicted here. (Illustration by Tim Silva, WHOI Creative, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Remote ocean sensing also stands to benefit from smaller and relatively low-cost technology. WHOI engineer Paul Fucile sees a trend towards the increased use of CubeSats—ocean sensing microsatellites smaller than a shoebox—for taking temperature, color, and salinity measurements from space. 

“A CubeSat can be extremely useful for oceanography,” says Fucile. “Much the way that gliders emerged in scientific use some 20 years ago and are quite common in the community today, CubeSats have the capability to provide an investigator with an economically-customized and dynamic sampling tool that can go from conception to launch in as little as 2-3 years.”

The future will also see new types of sensors for studying ocean biology, says Andy Bowen, director of WHOI’s National Deep Submergence Facility. In particular, sensors that can shed light on life in that shadowy ocean twilight zone.  

“We know so little about this vast area of the ocean, so there’s a huge push—and a huge challenge—to develop new sensing solutions,” he says. 

This will include high-sensitivity light sensors that measure light levels in the twilight zone. Bowen says these sensors will help scientists understand how solar radiation drives the daily migration of mesopelagic animals to the surface to feed. And, new sensors for measuring environmental DNA (eDNA)—the genetic traces organisms leave behind as they move through the water—will help scientists track which organisms live in the twilight zone, and identify previously unknown species. 

Expanding the view

Ocean scientists today are getting unprecedented glimpses below the surface, thanks to advances in high-definition camera and lighting systems, multi-beam sonar, lasers, satellites, and other imaging technologies. Today, 4K resolution cameras are used to spy on seal-prey interactions in fishing nets near the surface, underwater video microscopes image plankton and other organisms in the ocean’s midwater, and stereo machine vision camera systems document hydrothermal vents in the deep. 

But despite the tremendous strides made in imaging technology, researchers want to see more. 

“Today, we can create maps of the seafloor with amazing clarity,” says WHOI marine geologist Adam Soule. “But the problem is, only a very small portion is mapped.”

Estimates suggest that less than 20% of the world’s ocean floor has been mapped, which pales in comparison to our topographic understanding of the Moon. This is a problem. Getting a good read on the seafloor is essential to understanding ocean circulation and its effects on climate, tides, and underwater geo-hazards. 

Soule says new sonar imaging tools will be needed to facilitate a complete mapping of the ocean floor—a lofty goal of the project known as Seabed 2030. 


Compass Testing

WHOI engineer Robin Littlefield carries his miniature Single Blade submersible in Woods Hole, Mass. (Photo by Kalina Grabb, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

As ocean sensors continue to shrink in size, they’ll become more suitable for use on smaller submersibles like Single Blade. Driven by a single-bladed propeller and a lone tiny motor, it maneuvers through the ocean without fins, actuators, or additional thrusters. According to WHOI engineer Robin Littlefield, who designed Single Blade with Jeff Kaeli, Fred Jaffre, and Ryan Govostes, it takes the simplicity of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) to a whole new level. 

“We are very excited about this technology because it dramatically simplifies the hardware needed to propel and control an AUV. This makes for a more compact and reliable means of propulsion and opens up new possibilities for exploration,” Littlefield says.

Illustrations by Natalie Renier, WHOI Creative, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

“One idea is to build barges that are essentially huge floating sonar systems,” says Soule. “This will give us a much bigger array to work with and cover more of the seabed in less time.” 

Bellingham also feels that new tech approaches to mapping are in order, but sees the potential for smaller-scale solutions. 

“Today, we use large physical apertures on our sonar systems,” he says. “That means our vehicles have to be big enough to accommodate them. In the future, I can see things evolving to the use of synthetic apertures, which can perform the same functions computationally and require far less real estate. This would open up the range of vehicles we could use for seafloor mapping.”

Deep-sea imaging is another area where the tech landscape will continue to evolve, according to WHOI marine geologist Dan Fornari, who has helped pioneer a number of deep-sea imaging systems. Specifically, he sees promise in 3D imaging technologies, an environment that is often visually noisy. 

“When you go into the deep ocean, the visibility can be very poor due to all the particulates floating around and turbulence from currents,” says Fornari. “Even with the best cameras and lights, it can be like pea soup.”

He says 3D imaging could help in these poor-visibility environments by creating fine-scale, physical representations of the features that oceanographers are trying to study. One idea he’s discussed with HOV Alvin vehicle managers is populating the sub with a half-dozen cameras for a 360-degree, virtual reality-like view of the terrain as Alvin moves along. 

“If we get a really good handle on the physical settings and their structures in three-dimensional space, we can dive more into the biological, chemical, and other process-oriented phenomena happening in the deep in ways not possible in the past,” says Fornari. 

Advances in high-definition cameras, lighting systems, and other imaging gear provide scientists with unprecedented glimpses of marine life in the deep sea, like the zoarcid fish and tubeworms at the hydrothermalvent shown here. (Photo by P. Gregg, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign/NSF/HOV Alvin 2018 © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

An unmanned future

The ROV Nereid Under Ice (NUI) hovered gently a few feet above thick, colorful carpets of microbes stretched along the mineral-rich seafloor. The robot, about the size of a Smart Car, was navigating the dark and dangerous world of Kolumbo Volcano, an active submarine volcano off Santorini Island, Greece. 

Through a bubbling fog of CO₂ gushing from a nearby hydrothermal vent, the robot’s vision cameras locked-in on a patch of sediment at the base of a hydrothermal vent. Moments later—without the aid of an ROV pilot—a slurp-sample hose attached to the robotic arm extended down to the precise sample location and sucked up a bit of dirt. It was the first known automated sample taken by a robot in the ocean. 

The field test, in November, 2019, was a significant step in the evolution of autonomous
ocean robots. It shifts the playing field from standard autonomous vehicles—which rely on scripted mission programs—to fully autonomous vehicles that use AI-based tools to decide where to go and how to move. 

According to WHOI scientist Rich Camilli, this level of autonomy will become more important as robots are called on to explore deeper and more extreme parts of the ocean. In particular, the ability for a vehicle to balance possible scientific gain with safety concerns will be key. 

“Sending a robot into these kinds of environments can be like telling someone to hang glide through mid-town Manhattan in a heavy fog,” he says. 

But vehicle survivability is just one consideration. Underwater vehicles will also need fuller autonomy for decision making. During the Kolumbo expedition, an automated planning tool named ‘Spock’ gave NUI the ability to decide which areas of the volcano to explore. 

“All the sites Spock took us to turned out to be outstanding, scientifically-relevant sites,” says Camilli. 

It’s no coincidence that Spock is being developed as part of a NASA-funded program (called the Planetary Science and Technology from Analog Research interdisciplinary research program, or PSTAR, for short). If a robot needs to reason its way through Earth’s ocean, it will really need such skills to resolve unanswered questions on ocean worlds elsewhere in our solar system. 

“We don’t want a vehicle on a distant ocean world waiting for us to tell it what to do,” says WHOI senior scientist Chris German, who has also been working with NASA’s Planetary Science Division on technology development. “It would take hours, not minutes, to get a message to a robot in space based on the speed of light.” 

German has had his eye on other ocean worlds ever since the presence of ice-covered liquid oceans were confirmed on Jupiter’s moons Europa and Ganymede and, subsequently, Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Titan. He says that plans are underway for testing new autonomous capabilities of WHOI’s ROV Sentry

Neriud launch The WHOI-developed robotic vehicle Nereid Under Ice is lowered into the ocean for an initial dunk test in the port town of Lavrio, Greece. (Photo by Evan Lubofsky, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

“We’re going to have Sentry on the seafloor interpreting data on the fly and making its own decisions as to what’s scientifically interesting,” says German. “Then, it will send us a message indicating what features it found interesting and why, along with information about where it explored, what it looked at, and how it searched.”   

Loral O’Hara, an adjunct oceanographer at WHOI who recently became a NASA astronaut, says that the engineering needed to develop ocean vehicles and spacecraft can be very different. But when it comes to technologies and methods required to detect life in our own ocean—or on other planets—there may be common threads. 

“Searching for life when you don’t really know what you’re searching for is really exciting, and is one of the challenges we face both here on Earth and on other planets,” she says. “So, we’re working on instruments and system architectures that will allow us to do that in very diverse environments.” 

“On other planets, we’ll be looking for life, but we don’t really know what we’re looking for,” says O’Hara. “So that creates a lot of challenges: how do we detect life, what sensors do we need, etc. It’s mindboggling, but that’s the really exciting part.”

The virtual ocean

Gains in robot intelligence will undoubtedly lead to more ocean monitoring and sampling, particularly in areas that have been too dangerous or remote for oceanographers. But sampling the ocean is only one part of the equation. In order to make accurate predictions of long-term changes, ocean scientists will need to rely on a completely different technology used above the surface: computer models. 

“Models are incredibly good at forecasting future changes,” says Mara Freilich, an MIT-WHOI Joint Program student who studies how the ocean affects global climate and the cycling of nitrogen and other nutrients. “But the technology we have today could improve in terms of how they simulate certain things.”

She says that some small-scale ocean currents that are relevant to her studies cannot be simulated well due to limitations in pixel resolution. Climate models typically represent vast swaths of virtual ocean in a pixelated grid of uniform boxes, with each box spanning areas of tens of kilometers or more. This gives a broad spatial view of the environment as a whole, but doesn’t provide enough resolution to represent smaller scales. But she expects that as computing power increases, models will overcome these resolution constraints and become more adept at resolving ever-smaller ocean processes. 

Another factor that could help fine-tune ocean models is more hard data. “Improving our fundamental understanding of ocean processes through real-world observations will allow us to better represent them mathematically in the computer code,” says Freilich. 

MIT-WHOI Joint Program student Mara Freilich demonstrates how a computer model, known as the Process Study Ocean Model (PSOM), simulates swirling ocean currents called eddies. (Photo courtesy of Troy Sankey)

WHOI physical oceanographer Carol Anne Clayson also feels that more observation data is key to optimizing models. She has an eye on what she refers to as “Super Sites”—floating instrument platforms that measure a broad range of parameters in the ocean and the atmosphere. 

“Typically, when we have a permanent monitoring site in the ocean, we’re only measuring a few things,” says Clayson. “The idea here is to measure everything we can in a relatively small area for a few years at a time—from biogeochemical and physical processes underwater to turbulence in the atmosphere—so we can provide more comprehensive statistics that higher-resolution models will need.” 

Freilich says machine learning—a form of AI that enables systems to learn from data—could make models more capable by discovering patterns in hard data to understand or “learn” how particular ocean processes work. These patterns can then be incorporated into high-resolution models to help make predications. 

WHOI physical oceanographer Young-Oh Kwon agrees. He, too, uses computer models to simulate ocean circulation systems, and says the use of machine learning to enhance models looks promising. 

“Many in the community talk about the potential for machine learning to connect observation data and models, and figure out where models can be improved upon based on data collected in the ocean,” he says. “That’s a very exciting area.”

Science into action

In a 1977 research paper, physical oceanographer Walter Munk—often referred to as the “Einstein of the ocean”—commented on the lack of samples collected by the oceanographic community prior to the 1960s. “Probing the ocean from a few isolated research vessels has always been a marginal undertaking, and the first hundred years of oceanography could well be called ‘a century of under-sampling,’” he wrote. 

“A networked ocean will connect individual vehicles and instruments, and provide real-time information about what’s happening in the ocean, much like the National Weather Service.” ~ Dennis McGillicuddy, WHOI senior scientist

WHOI deep-sea biologist Taylor Heyl (in foreground) explores Lydonia Canyon in the OceanX submersible Nadir during a dive in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument. (Photo by Luis Lamar for National Geographic)

One hundred years from now, some may call what we’ll be doing “over-sampling”—particularly if advances in networked oceans, sensors, underwater imaging, and decision-making robots are brought to bear. Collectively, these innovations should yield dramatic shifts in our understanding of the global ocean. 

Bellingham puts it simply: “When you extend the reach of your tools, you learn more about the world around you.” 

Beyond a better understanding of the ocean, however, new tech will allow scientists to put real-time information into the hands of policy makers, resource managers, and others who can use it to plan sustainable uses of the ocean, adapt to changing ocean conditions, and create better governance and accountability over its use. 

“How and where the ocean is managed in the future depends heavily on the technology advances to come,” says Bellingham. 

The human connection

While technological advances will propel ocean science forward, Soule points out that human exploration will play a key role well into the future. It will still be vital, he says, for scientists to go to sea and immerse themselves in underwater environments in order to see what’s down there, interpret it, and make decisions. 

“You still need the creativity of people to make sense of it all,” he says. 

McGillicuddy echoes the sentiment. He notes that while things like networked oceans and fully autonomous robots will play exciting and important roles in our future ocean, past experience shows that some of our greatest discoveries come from human beings who are present at sea and able to recognize the unexpected—properties and phenomena—for which we don’t have autonomous sensors. 

“The future will be woven from a mixture of modern technology and ocean scientists who take water samples from the ocean and look at them the old-fashioned way,” he says. “We’re not giving up on bean cans just yet.” 


The remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Jason
is captured by the MISO GoPro 12MP digital camera developed by WHOI scientist Dan Fornari. The system combines specialized optics that correct for visual distortion underwater, ~20 hours of battery life, and a pressure-resistant housing designed for ocean depths of 6,000 meters (19,685 feet). (Photo courtesy of Dan Fornari, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Rebecca Carey, Univ. of Tasmania/NSF/WHOI-MISO)  biology Coastal Ecosystems Ocean Life

Rapid Response at Sea

September 18, 2019

Rapid Response at Sea

Long-endurance robots tested for oil detection in the event of a spill in the Arctic

By Evan Lubofsky | September 18, 2019

Ocean engineers are developing undersea vehicles that are capable of tracking oil spills under the ice in the Arctic and other remote areas. (Video by Pixabay)


As sea ice continues to melt in the Arctic and oil exploration expands in the region, the possibility of an oil spill occurring under ice is higher than ever. But how first responders will deal with oil trapped under ice in such an extreme and remote environment is a huge unresolved question.

“With the opening of the Northwest Passage a few years ago and more commercial ships routinely traveling through the area, there have been concerns among various government agencies that there’s no real infrastructure in place to respond to an oil spill below the ice,” said WHOI engineer Amy Kukulya. “From a logistics standpoint, it’s very challenging to get resources to the Arctic.”

Kukulya is leading multiagency collaboration aimed at developing cutting-edge sensors and autonomous robot capabilities that will help improve oil spill responders’ situational awareness and decision making during an emergency. “As oceanographers, we see a critical need for autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) that can survey spills under ice over long distances,” she said.

As part of the effort, she and her colleagues deployed a series of AUVs in late August off the coast of Santa Barbara, California to test the vehicles’ oil spill detection capabilities for rapid response during a real-world maritime oil spill. Collaborators on the project include the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) and the Arctic Domain Awareness Center (ADAC).

Awareness under water

The field program featured two complementary AUVs, a REMUS-600 outfitted with custom oil sniffing and sampling capabilities, and a Long Range Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (LRAUV), a new class of Arctic AUVs funded by DHS to provide a fast and persistent oil spill response for ice covered oceans.

An autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) is launched from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter (USCGC) George Cobb in Santa Barbara to test the vehicle’s oil spill detection capabilities for rapid response during a real-world maritime oil spill. (Photo by Amy Kukulya, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) An autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) is launched from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter (USCGC) George Cobb in Santa Barbara to test the vehicle’s oil spill detection capabilities for rapid response during a real-world maritime oil spill. (Photo by Amy Kukulya, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

The original LRAUV was initially developed at MBARI under the leadership of James Bellingham, now WHOI’s director of the Center for Marine Robotics (CMR). The latest model, which is still being developed in conjunction with MBARI engineers, is designed specifically to detect oil spills under ice. “Our goal is to provide the Coast Guard with greater awareness in the event of a real-world spill, and the ability to understand an incident while there is still time to react,” said Bellingham.

The vehicle can be launched into open water from shore, sea ice, ship or helicopter and is an ultramarathoner in the AUV world: it can operate continuously for more than two weeks over a distance of 620 miles (1,000 kilometers).

Dana Tulis, director of emergency management for the Coast Guard, says the new vehicle delivers on a critical and unmet need: fast and efficient data collection that can inform response management in remote and difficult-to-access areas.

“If you’re in a remote Arctic environment, rather than deploying a huge vessel, it would be ideal to have these easy-to-deploy robotic vehicles collect information from below the surface,” she said. “It’s a perfect complement to aerial drones, which we use to fly over remote areas instead of large planes. Embracing the latest technologies like this will allow us to save big on resources when it comes to oil spill response in the open ocean and in the Arctic. And, they can also help with with more common spill response in non-remote areas.”

Kukulya says a dozen LRAUV’s have already been built by MBARI, and a thirteenth is underway with WHOI as part of the oil response collaboration.

“This has become the most heavily-invested-in DHS Center of Excellence project in history due to the uniqueness of the technology and the urgency of the problem. It’s hard to believe what we’ve been able to accomplish in just the past five years.”

Bridging a gap

The prototype fills a void in marine robotics between underwater gliders—which can travel long distances but lack the power and payload capacity to carry an extensive suite of sensors—and standard AUVs which typically operate for only 24 hours or less. It builds off MBARI’s noncommercialized underwater vehicle platform—called a Tethys LRAUV—to which various technologies have been added over time. This includes sonar mapping, navigation systems, and specialized sensors that can detect where oil is spreading—and where it is not. First responders can use this information to efficiently track an actual oil spill remotely as it’s happening.

“We’ve had tremendous success in developing an oil spill sniffing and mapping vehicle that’s ready for the Arctic,” said Kukulya. “MBARI masterminded the development of the base vehicle, and the ADAC project combines the best of WHOI robotics to create an exceptional platform. It can do things no other vehicle in the world can do with reliability.”

Among the LRAUV’s key features, according to Kukulya, is a “buoyancy engine” which allows the vehicle to shift its internal weight and change its overall buoyancy so it can drift at zero propeller speed. This helps maximize endurance so it can rove for weeks on a single battery charge.

Shiny new things

In previous field tests of the LRAUV’s capabilities in Monterey Bay, California, the researchers used a green, biodegradable dye in the ocean to simulate an oil plume. The LRAUV successfully tracked patches of the dye for hours as it drifted through the water, surfacing every few minutes to transmit data for review and analysis by the researchers. During the more recent testing at the Santa Barbara site, the team conducted another simulated spill, only this time they used real oil, not dye. The site has naturally-occurring oil seeps, from which an estimated 20 to 25 tons of oil are emitted from cracks in the seafloor each day.

These two forward-facing black rods are part of a holographic camera system that was recently tested on WHOI autonomous underwater vehicles for oil detection in Santa Barbara. Here, the system is imaging gas bubbles jetting out of the seafloor. (Photo by Amy Kukulya, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution).


During the simulated oil spill, the team tested out new gear on the vehicle, including a holographic camera system. Developed by emeritus WHOI biologist Cabell Davis at the marine technology company he founded, Seascan, the system sends out laser beams roughly seven times per second to take detailed, three-dimensional images of oil droplets in the ocean. A new WHOI “water gulper” that collects up to a dozen water samples per mission also made its debut.

In addition to new hardware, the team has integrated the Robot Operating System (ROS) onto a ‘backseat’ computer for autonomous behavior adaptations.  WHOI research engineer Kevin Ducharme and assistant scientist Erin Fischell wrote and tested these new software capabilities on the REMUS vehicles, which will assist in oil spill rapid response efforts.

These two forward-facing black rods are part of a holographic camera system that was recently tested on WHOI autonomous underwater vehicles for oil detection in Santa Barbara. Here, the system is imaging gas bubbles jetting out of the seafloor. (Photo by Amy Kukulya, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution).

Passing the sniff test

Beyond cutting-edge technology itself, one critical success factor in moving the project forward to date has been the highly collaborative and multidisciplinary team approach, according to Tulis. When she visited the Santa Barbara testing site in late September, she was surrounded by engineers and scientists from various areas of expertise all working toward the same goal—integrating the new technologies into Coast Guard responses.

“On a single ship, you had experts in remote sensing and engineering, chemistry, and data management,” she said. “As I went from station to station, I felt like I was in science camp.”

Kukulya agrees that collaboration has been key: “We’re all one team,” she said. Moving forward, she says another critical success factor will be quick mobilization of the AUVs in the event of an oil spill. “Having the right tools for the job is one thing, but deploying them quickly enough in a remote and/or ice-covered region is another,” she said.

Researchers get the LRAUV ready to deploy for the simulated oil spill response drill. WHOI’s strength in marine operations and logistics, combined with the vehicle’s small form factor and easy-to-handle design, will enable quick mobilization in the event of an oil spill incident. (Photo by Amy Kukulya, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) Researchers get the LRAUV ready to deploy for the simulated oil spill response drill. WHOI’s strength in marine operations and logistics, combined with the vehicle’s small form factor and easy-to-handle design, will enable quick mobilization in the event of an oil spill incident. (Photo by Amy Kukulya, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Lessons learned from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill taught Kukulya and her team a great deal about the challenges of rapid response. “It took 10 days to get the first AUV in the water, and that was in a place that was easy to access,” she said.

The speed at which first responders could deploy AUVs in the Arctic remains a question, but Kukulya says that in addition to its strength in technology development, WHOI shines in the area of marine operations.

“We’re uniquely positioned in terms of our ability to not only develop cutting-edge technology, but get it deployed in the water very quickly,” she said. “Eventually, I can envision WHOI becoming the go-to place in the event of an oil spill in the Arctic or anywhere, as well as for rapid-response technology for harmful algae blooms, marine microplastics, or any environmental anomaly in the ocean that needs discrete sampling. We have systems right now in the lab that are ready to respond.”

This work is funded by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), the Department of Homeland Security, and the Arctic Domain Awareness Center (ADAC). The information in this article reflects investigations and conclusions sponsored by ADAC, DHS Center of Excellence in Maritime Research, hosted by the University of Alaska. Associated activities were supported by DHS under Grant Award No. 2014-ST-061-ML0002.  The views and conclusions of the information presented in this article reflects research conducted via ADAC and should not be interpreted as necessarily representing the official policies, either expressed or implied, of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.


A new way of “seeing” offshore wind power cables

May 25, 2019

A new way of “seeing” offshore wind power cables

Researchers test ocean robots to make subsea cable surveys faster and cheaper

By Evan Lubofsky | May 25, 2019

Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs)—a staple of oceanographic research—can perform subsea cable surveys faster and more economically than using ships with towed instruments. (Animation by Natalie Reiner and Craig LaPlante, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

In 2016, when an oil tanker off the British mainland came upon a patch of stormy weather near the Channel Islands, it dropped anchor to wait things out. Moments later, internet speeds on the UK island of Jersey plummeted.

It turns out, as the anchor hit bottom, it snagged a few network cables on the seafloor and severed them, leaving internet users across the island temporarily out of access.

Internet cables aren’t the only form of underwater wiring vulnerable to snags on the seafloor. High voltage cables supplying power from the mainland to offshore wind farms are also easy targets if they’re not adequately protected. These black, rubber-coated cables are not the most glamorous components of offshore wind—but they’re critical veins of power that wind operators, developers, and coastal communities rely on to keep this brand new source of clean energy in the U.S. going.

“Most people focus on the spinning blades of turbines to ensure that an offshore wind energy project will be successful, but the subsea cables that bring that power to land are equally as important,” said Anthony Kirincich, a physical oceanographer at WHOI. “Power can be cut by cable damage from ship anchors, fishing trawlers, or storms.  So, these cables need to be routinely surveyed and maintained to ensure a project will continue to provide power to the grid, and revenue to the operators.”

The need for speed

Subsea cables have traditionally been inspected using ships with towed instruments such as sub-bottom profilers, side-scan sonar systems, and cameras. They check to see if cables are buried at the right depth, if they are in the correct position, or if they are exposed in way where they can be easily snagged by anchors or trawl nets.

The ship-based approach works, but the use of ships can be extremely expensive and time consuming. Kirincich says that autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs)—a staple of oceanographic research—could be used in place of large, expensive ships to perform cable surveys much more quickly and at far lower costs.

“AUVs can cut down on ship costs and weather delays, while reducing the time required to gather the data operators need to assess their underwater infrastructure,” he said.

WHOI researchers deployed a REMUS 600 AUV to survey a subsea cable system in Buzzards Bay, Mass. The vehicle uses a propeller and fins for steering and diving, and relies on an internal navigation system to independently survey swaths of the ocean. (Photo by Evan Lubofsky, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) WHOI researchers deployed a REMUS 600 AUV to survey a subsea cable system in Buzzards Bay, Mass. The vehicle uses a propeller and fins for steering and diving, and relies on an internal navigation system to independently survey swaths of the ocean. (Photo by Evan Lubofsky, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Coming to a seafloor near you

Until recently, there hasn’t been a huge need for ship-based surveys in the U.S. offshore wind sector, simply due to the fact that only one offshore facility—the Block Island wind farm off the Rhode Island coast—is currently in operation. But that’s about to change. New offshore developments are on the horizon, being driven in part by an energy bill passed in Massachusetts—An Act to Promote Energy Diversity—which requires state utilities to draw on at least 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind energy by 2027. Vineyard Wind, a developer in New Bedford, Mass., nabbed the state’s first offshore wind contract and is planning to build an 800-megawatt facility consisting of 100 turbines in federal waters south of Martha’s Vineyard. And other firms are lining up sites and operating contracts for areas up and down the east coast.

More wind farms mean more subsea cables. So WHOI researchers, eager to share their own best practices and technical know-how with the offshore wind sector, recently field tested a REMUS (Remote Environmental Monitoring UnitS) AUV to see how it performed during a mock cable survey. Designed by WHOI’s Oceanographic Systems Lab, REMUS is a torpedo-shaped ocean robot that operates autonomously and is programmed and monitored via laptop. The vehicle uses a propeller and fins for steering and diving, and relies on an internal navigation system to independently survey swaths of the ocean.

“REMUS is one of the most capable AUVs available today for surveying the sea floor,” said WHOI engineer Robin Littlefield. “It serves as a flexible platform for various types of underwater sensors. In that sense, it’s a workhorse that we sometimes liken to a pickup truck that you can equip with just about anything.”

On a mission

WHOI researchers deployed the AUV to survey a subsea cable system in Buzzards Bay that links Martha’s Vineyard to grid power from the mainland. For this particular field test, Littlefield and his team modified a standard REMUS 600 with magnetometer sensors—one built into the nose of the vehicle and another, smaller one mounted on top—to track the underwater cable. The AUV was transported offshore with a small support boat, and surveyed a one-kilometer section of cable using a lawnmower-like pattern a few meters above the seabed.

A new submarine cable set to run along the East African coast and into the Red Sea is being planned for launch, which will help boost internet speed and mobile communication in Tanzania. (© A new submarine cable set to run along the East African coast and into the Red Sea is being planned for launch, which will help boost internet speed and mobile communication in Tanzania. (©

(Video by Craig LaPlante, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Each time the vehicle transected the cable, the magnetometers picked up the electromagnetic field emanating from it and recorded a “spike.” A side-scan sonar system, also mounted onto the AUV, was used to image and map the seafloor around the cable in order to collect detailed information such as the presence of gaps in the sediment protecting the cable.

“We were able to collect side-scan, sub-bottom, and magnetometer data from a single REMUS vehicle in a matter of hours,” said Littlefield. “It may have taken days with a ship.”

Use of the support boat helped streamline the field testing, but Littlefield says the AUV can be run directly from shore in the future to make the process even more efficient.

Beyond proof-of-concept

The next step will be analyzing the recorded data, a process that will involve visually overlaying the side-scan sonar and magnetometer measurements to make sure they correlate. The researchers will also compare electromagnetic signal measurements from the larger, onboard magnetometer sensors to that of the smaller, top-mounted sensor.

“Once we’re able to ground-truth the performance of the smaller magnetometer, we’ll look towards developing a low-cost sensor suite based on that technology that can become a standard on REMUS vehicles,” said Littlefield. “This will ultimately make it even more economical for the offshore wind industry to collect the information they need to assess the status of their infrastructure.”

Kirincich agrees, and says that in general, AUVs are a good example of a field-proven ocean technology that could and should be leveraged for U.S. offshore wind projects.

“As oceanographers, we have a role to play in transferring new technology solutions to the offshore wind sector,” he said. “REMUS is one tool we rely on heavily that could be transitioned into the industry for its benefit.”

This work was funded by a joint partnership between WHOI and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Mass., dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930 on a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate a basic understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. For more information, please visit

REMUS Physical Oceanography


Navigating the Changing Arctic

April 25, 2019

Navigating the Changing Arctic

New glider will collect critical-but-scarce ice thickness measurements

By Evan Lubofsky | April 25, 2019

glider WHOI scientists Rich Camilli (left) and Ted Maksym are developing a new autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) that will measure ice thickness from below the Arctic ocean surface for thousands of miles at a time, all with the power draw of a cell phone. (Photo by Jayne Doucette, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

As the fastest warming region on Earth, the Arctic is shedding its ice-covered skin at unprecedented rates. It’s lost 95% of its oldest (and most resilient) sea ice in recent decades, and some models suggest that if things continue to heat up, we could see an ice-free Arctic Ocean by mid-century.

To understand just how thin the ice cover has become, WHOI scientists are developing a new autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) that will measure ice thickness from below the surface for thousands of miles at a time, all with the power draw of a cell phone. It’s one of ten “Big Ideas” set forth by the National Science Foundation (NSF) that will help positioning the U.S. at the cutting edge of global science and engineering leadership.

“Understanding ongoing changes in ice thickness in the Arctic will allow us to identify trends that help long-term forecasting,” said Rich Camilli, a scientist at WHOI who spearheaded the development of the new instrument. “But under sea ice observations have been extremely difficult and expensive to make, and are very sparse as result. This new glider vehicle we’re developing overcomes many of the previous limitations and will make remote measurements of ice thickness—from below the ice—more logistically and economically-feasible than it’s been in the past.”

Removing the guesswork

Surveying ice from below the surface offers a number of advantages over measurements taken from above. Satellites can measure ice thickness above water, but they have trouble determining the submerged thickness and overall mass of the ice. “Snow depth and densities must be assumed,” said Camilli, “even though it can vary widely. By making measurements below the ice, we don’t have to rely on guesstimates.”

WHOI scientist Rich Camilli holds the “brains” of the under-ice glider—a low-power microcomputer which provides enough processing power to interpret the glider’s sensor data onboard and run adaptive mission plans that help it safely navigate its environment. WHOI scientist Rich Camilli holds the “brains” of the under-ice glider—a low-power microcomputer which provides enough processing power to interpret the glider’s sensor data onboard and run adaptive mission plans that help it safely navigate its environment. (Photo by Jayne Doucette, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

The new glider looks like a cruise missile with wings, and has bells and whistles that would excite any oceanographer attempting long-range under ice surveys. Up top in the vehicle’s nose is a sonar system that surveys and measures the ice as it cruises several meters below the cover. A high-efficiency thruster in the rear of the vehicle keeps the glider going across huge swaths of the ocean, and ensure that it stays ahead of the fast-moving ice pack. And, a Doppler sonar module provides navigational guidance based on the terrain of the seafloor. This, according to WHOI scientist Ted Maksym, is key since the glider is fully autonomous and doesn’t rely on commands from ship or shore.

“Traditionally, you put out an acoustic network to communicate with an undersea vehicle to know where it is when it’s under the ice and can’t surface,” he said. “But in this case, the idea was to be able to not have to have a network out there. We’ve designed this instrument so you can launch it from the shore and forget about it. The idea is to not have to rely on a network out there, and to have enough range so that you don’t need an icebreaker to help the glider get to where it needs to go.”

Low power, big smarts

Power optimization is the other big story here. The drone’s efficient low-power design helps ensure that it doesn’t run out of battery before making the return trip home—which is one of the biggest issues with long-range AUVs. “If the weather’s bad, the glider can go on standby to conserve energy and wait for pickup, and it has the smarts to stay ahead of ocean currents as it cruises to reduce power consumption. It’s kind of similar to when an airplane hops on a jet stream to conserve fuel.”

Camilli and Maksym are in the final stages of the initial build, and plan to begin field tests off Cape Cod during the Summer of 2019. Assuming the trials go to plan, the scientists hope to deploy the drones in the Arctic to begin collecting the critical ice thickness measurements that have been so scarce in Arctic research. This could help in long-term forecasting of when summer ice may disappear for good, or how much warming the Arctic will experience in the future. And they see other possibilities.

“Having sustained access to the underside of the ice will eventually allow us to do a host of other things, like monitoring oil spills under the ice, that have always been logistically challenging to do,” said Maksym. “The idea is to help open the door to doing things we would normally need an icebreaker to do.”

Funding for this research was provided through National Science Foundation award #1839063 to R. Camilli, B. Claus, T. Maksym and A. Mallios.

Tools & Technology Climate & Oceans Polar Research

The Deep-See Peers into the Depths

The Deep-See Peers into the Depths

February 20, 2019

In the ocean’s shadowy depths lies one of the Earth’s last frontiers: the ocean twilight zone. It’s a vast swath of water extending throughout the world’s oceans from 650 to 3,280 feet (200 to 1,000 meters) below the surface, and it abounds with life: small but fierce-looking fish, giant glowing jellies, and microscopic animals that feed marine life higher up the ocean’s food web.

This cold, dark, remote region of the ocean has remained largely unexplored, but a team of scientists and engineers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution have pioneered an ambitious new vehicle to blaze a trail into this ocean wilderness. Known as the Deep-See, it is a modern-day, subsea Conestoga wagon filled with a remarkable array of instruments designed to illuminate the ocean’s mysterious interior and reveal how many and what kinds of animals live there.

“To date, scientists have used several methods to explore the midwater depths, but each had its pros and cons,” said WHOI marine biologist Larry Madin. Acoustic sonars could detect masses of animals that reflected sound well, but they usually couldn’t distinguish individual species. Nets could bring back some intact animals, but they often squished the more gelatinous ones and missed those that were very small or could get out of the way. And cameras weren’t so effective at capturing images of animals that were sparsely distributed, moving, and often small or transparent.

“The aptly named Deep-See combines complementary imaging systems that promise to detect a broad range of organisms,” Madin said. It is towed behind a research ship from an electro-optical cable that can transmit power and data between the ship and the vehicle in real time. And it’s big, weighing 2,500 pounds (1,250 kilograms) and measuring about 16 feet (5 meters).

“It has plenty of room for all kinds of acoustic sensors and optical sensors—that’s another fancy word for cameras,” said WHOI acoustic oceanographer Andone Lavery, the lead scientist on the Deep-See project. “This particular combination has never been used before to study the twilight zone.”

The platform’s sophisticated acoustic and imaging systems include:

  • broadband, split-beam sonars to detect, count, track, and identify animals
  • a holographic laser-based camera to capture 3-D images of tiny plankton
  • a specialized stereo camera-and-lighting system to photograph jellyfish and other large animals
  • sensors to measure seawater properties, such as temperature, salinity, and dissolved oxygen
  • a sampler to collect DNA signatures of ocean twilight zone animals

WHOI mechanical engineer Kaitlyn Tradd helped to design and build the vehicle in three sections, or modules: the forward optics module for the cameras and lights, the middle acoustics module for sonars, and the aft module—the tail—for hydrodynamic stability and space to hold additional sensors and equipment.

“The three separate modules also allow us flexibility when it comes to how we configure the vehicle for a given scientific objective,” Tradd said. “The modules easily bolt together, and new sections can be developed and added should the need arise.”

As novel as the Deep-See is, many of its cutting-edge systems are built on decades of technology development and basic science research by WHOI engineers and scientists.

The early days of broadband acoustics

Lavery began working with sonar systems when she was just out of graduate school, and she quickly discovered that using sound to identify and count animals in the ocean is a tricky business.

A typical echosounder or “fish finder” works something like an acoustic flashlight, transmitting a single-frequency beam of sound into the water below a ship. Sound waves reflect off fish and other organisms, creating an echo that a receiver on the echosounder can detect. Many common fish, with their gas-filled swim bladders, provide readily detectable targets.

But what scientists really want to be able to do, says Lavery, is to tell how big the target animals are and how many there are—in other words, does the returning echo represent a single large fish or dozens of tiny zooplankton?

“When you have a single sound frequency, it’s really hard to tell,” Lavery said. “Because there are lots of different combinations of organisms that can give you a similar echo.”

WHOI acoustical oceanographer Tim Stanton is all too familiar with that problem. He spent more than 20 years bouncing sound waves of all different frequencies off individual organisms in test tanks. Lavery joined his efforts when she first came to WHOI as a postdoctoral researcher.

“We put one organism at a time in the test tank,” Stanton said—from large fish all the way down to a tiny swimming snail the size of a head of pin. To keep the snail in front of the beam of sound, Stanton restrained it with an acoustically transparent tether: a human hair.

“We did this both on land and on the deck of a ship, collecting nothing but live, pristine organisms, and making these series of measurements,” Stanton said.

Through that painstaking process, Stanton and Lavery were able to identify each species’ unique acoustic “signature”—the strength of the sound waves bouncing back off an organism at various frequencies. These included high-frequency sound waves—the kind needed to detect smaller crustaceans such as copepods and krill.

In the early 2000s, Stanton and Lavery started testing their lab-based signatures in the open ocean, working with seagoing acoustic systems that could transmit and receive sound at not just a single frequency, but at several different ones, or across a whole spectrum at once. They showed that different sound waves returned from different organisms, proving that this so-called broadband approach could distinguish and count animals in the open ocean.

For them, it was like going from getting information from only one radio station, then from several, then from all the stations across the entire FM dial.

Building on the BIOMAPER

One predecessor to the Deep-See was a ship-towed vehicle developed at WHOI called the Bio-Optical Multifrequency Acoustical and Physical Enviromental Recorder, or BIOMAPER-II. It was equipped with transducers that transmitted sound at 43 kilohertz (kHz), 120 kHz, 200 kHz, 420 kHz, and 1,000 kHz.

BIOMAPER-II had a lot of high-frequency acoustics on it,” said WHOI biologist Peter Wiebe, who led its development. “That meant it could detect not just fish, but tiny plankton that can only be detected at higher frequencies.”

However, BIOMAPER-II could only descend to 300 meters—not deep enough to be useful in the ocean twilight zone. In contrast, says Lavery, the Deep-See can descend to 2,000 meters and transmit sound across frequencies from 1 to 500 kHz.

“One of the big advantages of the Deep-See,” said WHOI scientist and engineer Dana Yoerger, “is that it puts high-frequency acoustics right down into the twilight zone. You can’t use high frequencies from a ship because they are quickly absorbed in seawater, long before they can reach the twilight zone.”

But having a small library of laboratory-derived acoustic signatures isn’t sufficient. The signatures for most already-identified twilight zone animals remain unknown, let alone for the species yet to be discovered. In addition, scientists need to ground-truth the acoustic data by seeing with their own eyes what the sonar systems are detecting. From a ship, without a submarine, they have only two options: cameras and nets.

The next generation of cameras

BIOMAPER-II had several bio-optical sensors and a video plankton recorder, or VPR—a kind of underwater microscope that could capture high-resolution images of tiny particles and plankton from 50 microns (0.002 inches) up to a few centimeters (about an inch and half) in size. The Deep-See improves on its predecessor with two camera systems capable of capturing images of the organisms detected by its acoustic arrays: one holographic, one stereo.

The first is a small-area, holographic camera system, developed by emeritus WHOI biologist Cabell Davis at the marine technology company he founded, Seascan. The camera system is analogous to the BIOMAPER-II’s VPR, “but it uses lasers to take detailed, 3-D images of tiny plankton in their natural environment without disturbing them,” said engineer Cliff Pontbriand, who worked on the camera at WHOI. To do that, the holographic system sends out a laser beam with a diameter of 1.5 inches (3 centimeters)—about seven times per second—from a transmitter on one side of the Deep-See’s front frame to a receiver 3.3 feet (1 meter) away on the other side of the frame.

The Deep-See’s stereo camera system also builds on an earlier technology, known as the Large Area Plankton Imaging System, or LAPIS, which Madin and colleagues developed more than a decade ago.

“The original LAPIS was really a proof-of-concept to provide images of larger organisms than the VPR could,” Madin said. Special strobe lights provided illumination for the LAPIS cameras, allowing them to “see” in dark ocean water down to 1,640 feet (500 meters) and capture low-resolution, black-and-white images of both opaque animals such as krill and transparent ones such as jellyfish and salps.

“The trick is in the lighting, which needs to be reflected for opaque targets but refracted—from beside or slightly behind—for transparent ones,” Madin said.

The Deep-See contains a next-generation LAPIS camera system. It images a 1-square-meter swath of water using a more versatile LED-based lighting array rather than power-hungry strobes, and it produces 24-megapixel images instead of 1-megapixel ones. The higher-resolution image quality makes it easier for scientists to identify twilight zone animals and even study some of their behavior.

Genetic evidence

To complement its acoustic arrays and camera systems, Deep-See carries a host of sensors that measure seawater characteristics, such as temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen concentrations, and the amount of light available to marine plants.

In addition, a sampler aboard the Deep-See collects filtered seawater containing genetic material from organisms living in it. Using cutting-edge gene-sequencing technology, WHOI biologist Annette Govindarajan is analyzing the water for this environmental DNA, or eDNA, seeking genetic evidence of life.

“Environmental DNA will allow us to detect evidence of twilight zone animals, including those missed by other sampling methods,” Govindarajan said.

Even with its combination of acoustics, imaging, environmental sensors, and water sampling capabilities, the Deep-See will not tell researchers everything they want to know about the twilight zone. To really understand this little-known region of the ocean, scientists will need to combine data from the Deep-See with information gleaned from traditional net tows and gathered by new underwater robotic systems such as the Mesobot. Using a multifaceted approach, Lavery says, should make it possible to reveal more accurately the abundance and diversity of animals in the twilight zone and to understand their behavior. It will also help determine how that behavior affects the ocean’s chemistry, including the transfer of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to the deep ocean, which has huge ramifications for Earth’s climate.

“No system is foolproof,” Lavery said. “But I think that with Deep-See’s combined capabilities, we can begin to get at some pretty important questions.”

The Deep-See had its first sea trials in August 2018, on WHOI’s first ocean twilight zone expedition. The nine-day cruise aboard the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s research vessel Henry B. Bigelow was a collaborative mission with NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center and the University of Connecticut. The Bigelow navigated beyond New England’s continental shelf to the deeper waters of the northwest Atlantic Ocean, where the vehicle’s unique combination of instruments collected more than 22 terabytes of data.

On its first foray into the twilight zone, the Deep-See has already challenged scientists’ previous understanding of life in the deep ocean. Earlier acoustic explorations suggested that twilight zone animals were concentrated in one or more dense layers. However, because most of these early acoustic systems operated at lower frequencies and were mounted on the ship’s hull, the sound scattering they detected was mainly from animals with internal gas bubbles, such as swim bladders in fish or gas-filled chambers in jellies that help them float. Many organisms, especially ones not containing gas bubbles, were acoustically invisible.

The more perceptive Deep-See was able to detect twilight zone animals with and without gas bubbles, spanning a diverse range of species—and found that they were spread throughout the twilight zone at all depths.

“That was really surprising,” Lavery said. “I’m eager to find out what the Deep-See will reveal to us next.”

Funding for the development of Deep-See came from the National Science Foundation.

Coding Curiosity

Coding Curiosity

January 16, 2019
Warping Sound in the Ocean

Warping Sound in the Ocean

November 28, 2018

Star Trek fans would tell you that it is possible to travel faster than the speed of light using spatio-temporal warping. Honorable scientists would say that’s science fiction. However, some scientists like me have not discarded the ideas of spatio-temporal warping. It may not enable fast travel, but it turns out that warping is actually very useful for many things.

Star Trek debuted in 1966, but warping didn’t hit the scientific community until 1995, and it remained a just fancy theory for at least a decade. Here’s how it is supposed to work:

Warping space (or time) is an actual deformation of our universe. Imagine that your universe is a sheet of paper. You live in the top-left corner, and you work in the bottom right. Five days a week, you have to walk the whole length of the diagonal line between them to go to work, which is quite time-consuming.

Illustration by Natalie Renier, WHOI Creative

What if you could bend the sheet and join the two corners?

Illustration by Natalie Renier, WHOI Creative

No sooner said than done, you could hop from home to work.

Illustration by Natalie Renier, WHOI Creative

This is an appealing idea. Unfortunately, so far, nobody has been able to actually warp time and/or space.

However, what cannot be done in real life can sometimes be done virtually, using a computer. Data can be warped at will!

“So why would anybody bother warping any data?” you may ask. For some not-so-mad scientists, there is good reason.  At the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, for example, we warp underwater sounds!

Wait … why would someone want to warp underwater sounds?

Well, because sound is the primary means to transmit information in the underwater medium. Listen in, and you can know what’s going on in the ocean. And warping makes it easier to unravel a cacophony of underwater noise and hear more clearly.

‘Seeing’ with sound

If you are deep under water, you cannot see past your nose. There’s no light, and there’s also no wi-fi, no cellphone coverage, no GPS. All these technologies are based on the propagation of electromagnetic waves (light, infrared, microwave, and radio waves). These are wonderfully efficient in air, but not at all under water.

Under water, sound may not travel as fast as light, but it wins the marathon and propagates way farther. To communicate, navigate, and explore under water, everybody uses sound. Dolphins and whales communicate with sound. The Navy hunts submarines using sound. Seabed mapping, oil and gas exploration, and underwater communications are all done using good old sound. The ocean definitely is not a silent world!

Oil and gas companies, for example, use airguns to find resources below the seafloor. These airguns basically work like a medical ultrasound, but to image the Earth, the sound waves must be much more powerful and very low frequency.

Illustration by Natalie Renier, WHOI Creative

Airguns generate sound waves that propagate vertically from water to seafloor, then inside the seafloor, and at some point, they bounce on something (hopefully an oil reservoir) and come back toward the surface and are recorded by an array of underwater microphones, called hydrophones, and/or ocean bottom seismographs.

The more sound-wave listening devices you have, the more data points you get from different locations, giving you more information over space and time to interpret your sound signals. But it’s complicated and expensive to build, deploy, and maintain arrays of listening devices.

Wading in shallow waters

Illustration by Paul Oberlander, WHOI Creative

Tracking sound waves that travel vertically down into the deep abyss and up again is difficult enough. But for practitioners of underwater sound forensics, tracking sound waves horizontally, over dozens (and hundreds and thousands) of kilometers is even harder, and in coastal waters, it is a nightmare.

In shallow waters, space is confined into a narrower channel between the sea surface and seafloor. Sound waves bounce up and down between them like sound waves bouncing off the sides of a very narrow canyon.

Let’s try to make it clearer. Close your eyes and picture yourself in the middle of a wonderful valley, surrounded by mountains. You know it is a great place to play with echoes, so you just shout “HELLO.” A few second later, the mountains reply “… HELLO … hello … hello.” These are the sound waves you emitted that bounced on three mountains and came back to you.

Now imagine that the sound can bounce everywhere, as they do in shallow waters. You’ll receive hundreds of mixed hellos, and you may hear something like “HEhLhelleloolLloHeleoo.” There are so many echoes altogether that you cannot separate them.

Illustration by Natalie Renier, WHOI Creative

Look at the illustration above. In shallow waters, the seafloor and sea surface funnel the sound waves forward, acting as a “waveguide.” But the individual echoes (usually called propagating “modes” in science speak) that bounce off the “walls” of the seafloor and sea surface  all interfere with one another. The effect is called waveguide dispersion, and as a result of it, the sound emitted by a source (say, a singing whale) in coastal waters is different from the same sound when it is recorded by a hydrophone a few kilometers away. That complicates things. How could we know that we are listening to a whale if it does not sound like a whale?

We have to unravel a hodgepodge of sounds, in which each individual signal is messed up because of dispersion. And at the same time, we’d like to do it without using expensive hydrophone arrays.

Warping is an exciting and effective way to accomplish this—with a single hydrophone.

The key notion is that the mixed-up dispersion patterns of the echoes/modes also carry information about how the sound is propagating—and thus about the environment (the water, the seafloor) that the sound is propagating through. If we can unmix the echoes/modes, we may be able to understand what is going on and infer information about both the source (yes, it’s a whale, and it’s five kilometers away!) and about the marine environment (what a surprise, the seafloor is muddy!).

Now, how do we do that? Unmixing the modes is the tricky part. It requires adequately processing the recorded sound data with a computer—a technique whose name you’ve probably heard of: “signal processing.”

Decomposing sound

There are a number of tricks we employ in signal processing. One classical trick is to transform sounds into pictures. To do that, we “decompose” a signal into constituent parts in order to change how it looks (which in science speak is called its “representation”).

I know this sounds obscure, so let me translate with an analogy. Let’s say our sound signal is represented as a toy house built with 100 Lego bricks. Many representations of the house are possible, and we can “decompose” these representations by several categories. For example:

  • Based on house elements, the house has four walls, one roof and a chimney.
  • Based on brick size, it has 30 3.6-by-3.6-millimeter bricks, 30 7.2-by-7.2 bricks, and 40 3.6-by-14.4 bricks.
  • Based on brick color, it has 20 green bricks, 50 orange bricks, and 30 blue bricks.
  • Based on brick type, it has 3 3.6-by-3.6 green bricks, 15 7.2-by-7.2 orange bricks, 10 3.6-by-7.2 blue bricks, 1 7.2-by-7.2 green brick, etc.

Illustration by Natalie Renier, WHOI Creative

Signal decomposition works exactly the same. One needs to choose an adequate representation and decompose the signal into it. In our underwater sounds context, the idea is to find a representation where we can easily unmix the modes. Here’s a quick example:

This is a classic representation of the sound of an airgun recorded eight kilometers away from the airgun source in the North Sea. It shows how the sound evolves with time. The vertical axis (acoustic pressure) is a measure of how powerful the signal is. It shows that the signal we recorded is powerful between 0.2 and 0.6 seconds, so that it lasts 0.4 seconds. Yet, we know that the original airgun sound from the source lasted less than 0.1 seconds. How can this be?

To try to make it clearer, say the source emits “BAM.” It has three letters and lasts three seconds. A few kilometers away, however, our hydrophone received “bbaAAaBbAmMM,” which has 12 letters and last 12 seconds. The received sound lasts longer than the signal at the source.

What happens is that different sound frequencies travel at different speeds. A good analogy is a race in which each individual runner is a frequency. When the starting gun goes off, every runner (and frequency) starts at the same time. But as the race progresses, the space between the faster and slower runners increases. Similarly, different frequencies travel at different speeds; the faster ones arrive first and the slower ones arrive later, so that the length of the signal increases.

Let’s go back to the airgun. The different frequencies of sound from the airgun traveled at different speeds, and thus our received signal is longer than the source signal. Is that it! No, that would be too easy.

Our hydrophone recorded many echoes/modes of the original airgun sound. Our received signal is completely different from the source signal. We need to unmix the echoes/modes to fully characterize it. We will have to decompose the airgun signal in another way, to transform the sound into another representation like this one:

This picture shows how the signal evolved over time (horizontal axis). In particular, it shows (on the vertical axis) how the sound signal’s frequency (high pitch versus low pitch) changed. We can see five or six yellow-greenish curved shapes. We have separated out and revealed all the individual modes that made up the signal!

Still, the separation between modes is a little mushy. Would you be able to see clean borders to separate them? The green-yellow is leaking from one mode to another. It would be a hard job to draw a conclusion. Our signal representation is not as clear as we would like. We need to do something else.

This is where warping becomes quite useful. (This is an article about warping, remember?)

Do you recall the warping example at the beginning of the story? Bending a sheet of paper to make traveling to work more convenient? We will do the same here—in two steps.

Time warp

First, we warp the signal by bending time. Mind you, we don’t truly bend time, but we can do it on the data using a computer. No faster-than-light travel here, but time warping it is! The graph below looks similar to the graph above, but look carefully. In the graph below, the sound signal is plotted not against time, but against warped time. We’ve warped time—stretching it so that the signal now lasts over 2.5 seconds, not one second, as it is in the graph above. As a result, the signal also gets stretched apart a bit, allowing us to separate out the modes.

Not quite as exciting as Star Trek, perhaps. But time warping it is.

In the second step, we take that time-warped signal and, as we did above, we chart it against frequency. And see what we have here:

Five nice horizontal bananas. Yes, these are our five modes again, but now separated and easy to distinguish.

Each banana contains info about what happened to the signal as it propagated through the ocean. That includes information about the location of the signal’s source, as well as information about seabed and/or water that it traveled through. Separating out the various bananas/modes unmixes the dispersion mess and makes this info available to us. Mind you, warping did not create anything. But it made the representation better.

Without warping, this would have required an expensive array of receivers. But if you warp time to separate the modes, you can get all the information you need from one hydrophone—making acoustical oceanography experiments much easier and cheaper.

Mixing basic and applied science

But what is gained on one hand must be paid on the other. Here, the price is data processing. Warping underwater sounds is not as easy as it seems.

To warp properly, you need to know what you want. Do you remember our sheet of paper? You must know where you are and where you want to go. If you randomly bend the paper, you may not gain anything, or even makes things worse.

Illustration by Natalie Renier, WHOI Creative

Illustration by Natalie Renier, WHOI Creative

The same holds true with warping sound. It’s a bit of a chicken-versus-egg scenario. In a way, you need to know which modes you’re looking for in order to unmix them with warping.

This is where basic science usually clashes with applied science. From the basic science point of view, warping is a wonderful signal-processing method. From the applied scientists’ point of view, warping is a useless data-processing trick. Why would you need such a stupid method that requires knowing what you are looking for in order to find it?

The solution is to build a bridge between basic science and applied science. To do so, the two groups need to understand both the geeky warping concepts and the pragmatic physics of sound propagation in the oceans.

If we do, we can routinely use warping for real-life oceanographic applications. We can use less expensive one-hydrophone methods to home in on the locations of baleen whales in the Arctic or to reveal a more detailed picture of the seafloor off Cape Cod (I wasn’t kidding, there’s really mud down there!).

Now, dear readers, you may have to warp your minds a bit to imagine how we can do that.

Illustration by Natalie Renier, WHOI Creative

This research has been funded by the Délégation Générale de l’Armement (French Department of Defense), the Office of Naval Research, the Office of Naval Research Global, and the North Pacific Research Board.

Life at the Edge

August 14, 2018

What makes the shelf break front such a productive and diverse part of the Northwest Atlantic Ocean? To find out, a group of scientists on the research vessel Neil Armstrong spent two weeks at sea in 2018 as part of a three-year project funded by the National Science Foundation.