Innovative Submersible Technology Unlocks Ocean Exploration & Research

What’s your earliest memory of the internet? I remember mine as though it were yesterday. It’s been 30 years since I first typed the words “national geographic” into the URL bar (on what would be considered a slow-as-molasses dial-up connection today).

That summer in 1993, as I typed “national geographic” into that search bar and was taken to a page where I could explore the Great Barrier Reef virtually, I realized deep in my soul that the ocean would forever be a source of inspiration and wonderment and somehow play a significant role in my career.

When we think about ocean exploration, we think of ambitious men in tailored tracksuits cocooned in the cabin of deep-sea submarines with vast glass domes as they navigate into the darkness of the abyss. Still, in recent years, exploration has become so much more than that. Technology has made exploration more feasible, and numerous organizations are working to make it accessible to the masses, like the Ocean Discover League, led by Dr. Katy Croff Bell.

The Ocean Discovery League “aims to accelerate deep-ocean exploration by developing accessible systems to broaden the community of those who explore and understand the deep sea.” Still, Dr. Croff-Bell isn’t the only scientist amplifying the visibility of exploration tools made available and affordable to what’s historically been a boy’s club of ultra-elite rich men. An entire cohort of female-led scientists, researchers, and even amateurs is helping accelerate tools, programs, and applications of novel and emerging technology to further ocean exploration. I’m proud to be one of them.

Innovative Monitoring & Discovery

In 2018 I earned a certification to instruct citizen scientists on how to identify coral bleaching and disease in Florida. Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) had been wreaking havoc on Florida’s Coral Reef for half a decade, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) needed help. They needed assistance with monitoring and identifying the disease. To fill the need, a citizen science program was developed to train snorkelers, divers, and ocean enthusiasts to identify and log areas where SCTLD or other pathogens were present.

A year into training folks how to report coral disease, I was approached by a friend at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) who had partnered with SoFar Ocean, an emerging data company, to get some submersible drones into the hands of scientists monitoring marine wildlife and conditions at sea and were seeking novel ways to use this new technology for conservation and data collection. My friend was curious if this technology could help facilitate coral surveys, and I discussed the possibility with my husband, an aerial drone engineer who creates custom film and photography drones for professional filmmaking. We decided to apply for the tech grant and see if it worked. Could this machine help us conduct more surveys? We were about to find out.

In December 2019, a rather large and assuming box appeared on our doorstep, and the unpacking was reminiscent of a childhood Christmas morning; the SoFar Ocean drone had arrived! We quickly coordinated with a neighborhood friend to bring the drone to their pool for testing and familiarizing ourselves. After corresponding with FDEP and explaining what we were hoping to accomplish with the submersible drones, we worked together to identify six offshore reef locations that would be good candidates for testing the equipment out. One global pandemic and a few months later, we embarked on our first survey with our project partners, the International SeaKeepers Society and the Surfrider Foundation.

On January 16, 2021, we conducted our first expedition to Emerald Reef, and the footage was extraordinary. We saw awe-inspiring giant barrel sponges and so many fish! And while we quickly realized we could definitely use the drone for coral documentation, we also realized we needed motors with more fine mobility to navigate the strong pull of the currents and better study subject matter.

We started researching what other tools were out there that could help us complete the five remaining surveys. Dozens of hours of research and a few months later, another box appeared on our doorstep. The Chasing M2 had arrived, and we were about to embark on the granddaddy adventure of them all. The Chasing checked all the boxes, 4k video capabilities, eight multi-directional motors, headlamps, and the possibility for accessories expansion. We completed our five remaining surveys and then partnered with another nonprofit seeking to do reef surveys in an urban reef environment. Over the course of several months, we conducted monthly surveys in a targeted area to map changes in the coral reef and document transient wildlife coming and going from the reef. What we uncovered was a cacophony of wildlife and healthy corals thriving in less-than-ideal conditions.

This urban reef, located within range of a major shipping port and just offshore some of the busiest beaches in Palm Beach County, FL, was an outlier. Its ability to survive was mystifying, and while signs pointed that the reef likely did better before the influx of tourists, transplants, and port business, it was by all means an example of the type of environments that scientists want to study. What made the coral in this location thrive while others in similar conditions were stressed, diseased, or bleached?

Technology Opens Doors

Three years later, we still don’t have all the answers, but what we have learned is that ocean exploration is more than million-dollar subs on the ocean floor. Technology is giving us each the ability to be explorers in our own right, in a world so interconnected it can seem that everything has been explored and discovered, but that isn’t true. If you’re curious about something, go for it! There are wonders to uncover just off the shore, in plain sight, theories left unconsidered.

Later this year, I hope to use our submersible drones to help log queen conch populations in seagrass beds in the Bahamas, an application for this technology that has never been attempted before; we’ve also started using the drones to conduct fish counts and wildlife monitoring, and I know the possibilities are endless.

Inspiring accessible science and exploration is at the heart of what I do; not only have the drones made these research projects possible, but they are also a way to help those with physical limitations participate in science and research. Not everyone is capable of diving. Being neurodiverse, I am not a candidate for scuba certification, but I have plenty to contribute, and this technology has allowed me to do so. It can help other marine scientists and researchers as well. Technology is changing what we are all capable of, and I have no doubt that the contributions to come will be significant.

To dive into Conservation Key’s past and upcoming projects, visit: https://www.conservationkey.org

This feature appeared in Environment, Coastal & Offshore (ECO) Magazine's 2023 Deep Dive II special edition Marine Environmental Research, to read more access the magazine here.

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