Custom Microscope for Ocean Exploration

Ocean PictureResearchers of oceanography have, for a while, been crafting new and innovative technology to explore more of the ocean floor. While engineers have churned out everything from humanoid robots to submersibles, there is something to be said for getting up close. This is why a research team at Scripps Institution of Oceanography has created an underwater microscope. This new exploration technology is meant to be operated by divers and studies naturally occurring processes on the seafloor at a millimeter scale. Biological processes on the ocean floor have, in the past, been observed by taking samples from different areas to labs. This microscope gives researchers the unique opportunity to study biological processes as they happen, undisturbed.

It is called the Benthic Underwater Microscope, and it is the first device able to take data from the ocean floor at such a small scale. It has a diver interface that is attached to a microscopic imaging unit. The unit itself is magnified, has LED lights for fast exposure times, and has the ability to change focus, much like the human eye does to best view what it is studying. According to the researchers, this microscope even has the ability to see single cells.

This new device was first tested in the Red Sea. The researchers wanted to see how much of the interaction between two corals it could pick up. The microscope showed that these corals, who were rivals, were actually emitting filaments to secrete enzymes in attempts to break down the tissue of the other. It was a purely chemical battle for more space on the ocean floor. The researchers made sure of this by moving two coral of the same species close to each other and observing that the same chemical warfare did not take place. This has determined that coral are smart enough to recognize if they are surrounded by others of their kind or by different species, and they react accordingly.

The next target of the researchers was just off of Maui, where a large coral bleaching event had taken place. The microscope showed that initial signs of algae colonization were happening on the bleached coral, in between coral polyps. This discovery is huge in the study of the abilities of algae. It shows that algae is able to completely take over coral when bleaching is occurring.

The above are just initial findings of this new microscope, but they show the vast implications of its creation. Instead of having to bring samples of life on the ocean floor back to a lab, this device allows the ocean floor to become a lab. With it, researchers are able to see microscopic processes happening at a natural rate. I am excited to see what else we will find.  

The NOAA Looks Back at Failed Whaling Expedition

The whaling industry, once booming, was already declining when a whaling expedition in 1871 became a disaster. This expedition consisted of 40 ships, sailing near Wrainwright, Alaska. The crew of 32 of the ships were forced to evacuate and abandon them in the ice, creating a disastrous loss to the whaling industry. For years following, expeditions were sent to this area to try and recover remains from the lost ships and to learn from what was found. In 2005, archaeological researchers were sent by the National Geographic Society, The National Science Foundation, and the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium on a similar mission to find and study the failed expedition. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration later documented the results of their findings.

The archaeologists were tasked with this four year project not only to benefit future offshore surveys but also to discover exactly what happened during the failed expedition. In order to do this, they had to adjust their understanding of the shoreline near which remains of the vessels were found, as it would have been different at the time of the 1871 expedition. They also had to estimate where ship remains may have traveled over the course of over 100 years. The researchers built on the findings of past archaeologists who had explored the sights to develop conclusions about both of these factors.

The researchers were tasked with uncovering remains that spanned almost 100 miles by searching both the land and the water. They used technology such as remote sensors and techniques such as scuba diving with underwater metal detectors to explore the area under the water. Their exploration above the water consisted of searching for signs of wreckage and miscellaneous artifacts from the 1871 ships. They also were able to study the shoreline from above by flying over the land.

As time passed, the archaeological researchers were able to learn more about the erratic behavior of this Alaskan water and adjusted their methods accordingly. They located which area of water was most likely to hold wreckage based on the water’s behavior and changed the technology they were using to get a clearer view of the underwater space. Unfortunately, they were faced with uncooperative conditions. For example, erosion in the wreckage area is high, and the ice building and moving over the years most likely entrapped remnants of the 1871 fleet ships.

No matter how much specific areas in the large wreck site were singled out, no one piece of wreckage could be matched to a specific ship. This is not only because many of the remains were lost, but also due to the fact that all of the whaling ships were highly similar. Furthermore, many artifacts washed ashore from the wreckage could not be claimed by the researchers because nearby Inupiat villages used pieces of the ships for construction or in personal collections. Thankfully, the villagers took the researchers to the sites and allowed them to inspect the artifacts.

Study of the 1871 whaling ‘disaster’ is important in both archaeological and ocean exploration contexts. The wreckage holds a lot of insight into the past, and it also holds knowledge about the dangers of that specific portion of waters near Wrainwright, Alaska. Although whaling is now generally frowned upon, this information is key in further water travel and ocean exploration in that area.