Mapping The Deep

Unknown seamounts, new hydrothermal vents, undescribed species—the Schmidt Ocean Institute is illuminating Earth’s darkest frontier
Story by Meghan Miner Murray.

In a dry computer lab on a boat in Honolulu Harbor, Leighton Rolley rotates a colorful 3-D topographic map on his screen. “Only 3 percent of the world’s oceans are mapped,” he says while zooming in on the contours of a massive seamount. The mountain spans twenty nautical miles (about twenty-three land miles) and rises 11,150 feet from the ocean floor—more than three times higher than the peaks of O‘ahu’s Ko‘olau mountains just visible through the lab’s porthole.

Rolley can zoom in on the rock face of the seamount to view features that are a few meters in length. This seamount was nothing more than a blur on a satellite map until just last week, when Rolley and his team of engineers from the Schmidt Ocean Institute helped map it during a transpacific transit between Astoria, Oregon, and Honolulu, Hawai‘i.

Mapping the seafloor is just one of the scientific pursuits aboard Falkor, a 272-foot research vessel that’s unique in the field of ocean science. Between 2009 and 2012 the six-deck German fishery protection vessel was outfitted with cutting-edge oceanographic and computer technology and renamed Falkor by its new owners, the private nonprofit Schmidt Ocean Institute (SOI). Falkor has since hosted hundreds of scientists from institutions all over the world conducting oceanographic research. Each year, SOI selects eight or nine independent projects and covers the costs of guest scientists’ ship time and supplies them with the tech needed for their projects. In return scientists must share their data quickly and publicly—not a small ask in a traditionally slow-moving and siloed field.

Rolley is part of a team of some twenty-four permanent international crew members working aboard Falkor. When research cruises take the ship over uncharted areas of the ocean floor, Rolley and the other engineers map the seabed and upload results that will eventually populate the pixelated waves of blue in Google Earth. To date, Falkor’s crew has discovered dozens of features on the seafloor and named at least six seamounts.

In 2014 Falkor sailed northwest from Honolulu to Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, a huge protected area originally set aside by President George W. Bush in 2006. Scientists dedicated an entire cruise to surveying it, creating detailed maps of 35 percent of the monument’s seafloor. Later that year, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists used Falkor’s monument maps to guide a submersible robot through canyons and crevasses and discovered—among other things—new species of deepwater fish. Scientists working on Falkor have not only found some of the deepest hydrothermal vents yet discovered, they’ve created new technologies to interact with their data. Now anyone with a virtual reality headset can walk through a fuming 3-D hydrothermal vent field. The detail on these virtual vents is so fine that it’s possible to make out individual mussels attached to rocks.

Of course, for those advancing science, it helps that Falkor is comparatively plush. Where most research ships offer thin cots and require BYO sleeping bags, Falkor has real mattresses with feather comforters and laundry service. There’s a DVD library, a gym, a snack bar, a sauna. But the biggest amenities aren’t the gourmet ethnic food or the in-transit Wi-Fi. It’s the Falkor’s shipboard technology. Considering SOI’s philanthropic founders are Wendy and Eric Schmidt—the latter a former Google CEO and current executive chairman at Alphabet—this should come as no surprise. “Falkor is really two kinds of resources for the world,” says Wendy Schmidt. “It’s a shared platform for scientists and a rapidly growing world of shared information. It’s also a platform for technology.”

In exchange for use of the ship (seen here in Honolulu last August) scientists’ data is shared quickly and publicly. On the title page, a map of “Big Top,” a seamount near Johnston Atoll, generated using Falkor’s multibeam sonar.

Onboard, high-performance computing is the ship’s real standout. Typically, researchers working at sea must wait until they get back to the lab to process and analyze samples. On Falkor they can see a variety of readouts in real time and make adaptive decisions. The ship also sports two remotely operated vehicles (including one that can navigate to 14,750 feet), aerial drones, lander platforms that serve as elevators to ferry samples from great depths, two Zodiacs for inshore exploration, multiple mapping technologies and an entire array of sounding equipment that would put your uncle’s Fishfinder to shame.“It can look for everything from whales to plankton,” says Rolley.

One can chalk up Falkor’s many successes to careful planning, top-notch tech, happy scientists and the organization’s rigorous research selection process. But there’s also a dash of good fortune. “Falkor is the luckdragon in the 1970s fantasy novel The NeverEnding Story, a wise, optimistic and purposeful character who advises, ‘If you never give up, luck will find you,’” says Schmidt. Luck was in their favor in 2014 when Falkor sent a landing vessel down to the deepest part of the ocean. “In the Mariana Trench, under pressures equaling the weight of fifty jumbo jetliners … we discovered and videoed a new species of fish swimming along in the deepest water,” Schmidt says. “We named it the ‘ghost fish,’ and it kind of looked like the luckdragon, Falkor.”

This year Falkor has been a regular sight at Pier 35—adjacent to much of Hawai‘i’s tuna fishing fleet and popular seafood restaurant Nico’s Fish Market on Pier 38. It helps that the Islands are centrally located in the Pacific, but more than that, the waters around Hawai‘i—with tropical, reef-dotted lava flows and deep dropoffs close to shore—are a fascinating subject of study. Scientists from the University of Hawai‘i have been granted ship time on twelve of Falkor’s forty-two research cruises to date, and cruises involving scientists from other parts of the world have also won ship time to conduct their experiments in Hawai‘i’s waters. Two more cruises next year ensure the luckdragon’s return to Honolulu.

Left to right, Richard Camilli, Christopher Roman and Angelos Mallios examine Falkor’s Lagrangian float, used to photograph the seafloor and study water chemistry.

One O‘ahu resident awarded a berth on a 2017 cruise was Kirsten Carlson. The blond-haired 49-year-old with a surfer’s vibe has science chops—she’s studied biology at the University of Missouri-Columbia and, later, marine biology at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in San Francisco—but she brought an altogether different skill aboard Falkor last January for a twenty-five-day cruise with scientists from NASA. She brought paintbrushes and a watercolor set. “Historically artists have played an important part in scientific expeditions,” Carlson says. “I wanted to compare and contrast a bit of the old way that artists studied and captured nature with the new way.”

Carlson was selected to be among Falkor’s Artists at Sea, a program conceived by Wendy Schmidt and launched in Honolulu with the aim to translate the scientists’ data and experiences at sea into art. On Carlson’s cruise, researchers measured tiny particles at the air/sea transition as the ship crossed the Pacific, in part to better understand the global carbon cycle. They fired lasers at seawater samples to determine the size of the particles they contained. Using something called a photosynthetron, researchers monitored how much oxygen was being absorbed within those seawater samples. Meanwhile, Carlson collected her own sort of sea/sky particle data. She held up a homemade cyanometer—a color wheel invented in the 1700s featuring fifty-three shades of Prussian blue—and made daily watercolor sketches. “It forced me to go out every day and look at the sky and sea,” she said. She also sketched the equipment the scientists were using to learn more about them. “It’s the part of science that I love, it’s the observation mode,” she says. When scientists pulled tiny vials of seawater aboard every twenty-two minutes during the Pacific crossing, Carlson was beside them, identifying and later making detailed drawings of the plankton they found.

Greg Packard and Judson Poole Jr. of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute prepare a drone to map the seafloor near O‘ahu and Moloka‘i.

Per tradition, each of the artists (ten to date) that cruise on Falkor leaves behind a memento. Along with The NeverEnding Story quotes that pepper the beige bulk-heads, their art encourages the scientists to think outside the box. Michelle Schwengel-Regala, another Honolulu-based artist, turned a utilitarian support beam toward the ship’s stern into a colorful and fuzzy conversation piece by “yarn bombing” it. Schwengel-Regala knitted square replicas of graphs produced by a machine that measures the salinity, temperature and depth of seawater along a vertical transect. By the end of her cruise, the fiber artist had fashioned an entire data set from yarn. Photographer Leslie Reed soaked rolls of film in seawater before developing them by hand to produce abstract images. And, you only need to log on to any of the ship’s computers to gain access to other artists’ work: animations of Falkor’s ROV Su-Bastian (a nod to the machine’s submersible capabilities and another NeverEnding Story character named Bastian) and even music inspired by the sound of the ship’s equipment and the sea itself.

Some of the artists’ work has made it off the ship. To celebrate Falkor’s fifth anniversary in 2017, galleries in coastal cities around the United States hosted a traveling exhibit of some of the ship’s scientific art—Honolulu’s Bishop Museum had the honors for the month of September.

Back in the dry lab, Rolley prepares his files to begin the process of giving the new, twenty-three-mile-long seamount a name. “It was in a chain of three sea-mounts,” Rolley tells a small group of onlookers. “The other two were discovered in the 1950s, I believe, and then this one, the third one, hadn’t been mapped or anything. We realized it was quite a prominent target and did two or three lines over it. Even then it was too big for our multibeam to do the full feature in the time we had.”

Among the high-tech toys aboard Falkor is a remotely operated vehicle, SuBastian, seen above preparing to dive the Mariana Trench in 2016. The team behind SuBastian has discovered dozens of new features, including six previously unknown seamounts—and counting.

The naming process will be involved—his report describing the new seamount and its boundaries could be more than thirty pages long. Once the Falkor team selects a name, it will go through two international governing boards that might veto it. But whatever name is ultimately decided, it will literally put the seamount on the map.

Rolley’s seamount is just one of many missing pieces in the ocean’s puzzle the Falkor has helped to place. “The world’s oceans are more complex and harder to study than what’s in space,” says Schmidt. “Our oceans are facing numerous man-made threats, and part of our goal is to find ways to mitigate them.” To do it, she says, “we need far more information than anyone has ever collected and analyzed. … SOI is a philanthropic platform that encourages exploration and data sharing and engages the public in understanding the connection between ocean health and the well-being of life on Earth.” HH