Aboard E/V Nautilus: A Teacher’s First Day Steaming Off The Coast of California

(Editor’s note: Luis G. Mora is a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, teaching seventh graders in the Harry Bridges Span School in Wilmington, California, near the Port of Los Angeles. Mora was chosen as a Science Communication Fellow as part of the Community STEM partnership between AltaSea and Ocean Exploration Trust designed to connect Los Angeles-area educators and learners with ocean researchers aboard OET’s exploration vessel, E/V Nautilus. This post and subsequent ones from Mora will detail some of his experiences while aboard the ship as part of the fellowship program.)

By: Luis G. Mora, Science Communication Fellow

July 7, 2017

After lunch on our first day at sea, I found myself planted on a soft couch in a wood-trimmed lounge of the 211-foot-long E/V Nautilus, steaming miles from shore into the Eastern Pacific Ocean.  A confusing wave of pride, amazement, and anxiety washed over me. Thoughts came to me, such as, “How did a seventh-grade teacher get here?” and “Do I really belong with this group?” Then a tiny pang of fear hit, a pang I suspect most of us have had at some point, “What if I make a mistake?”

Luis Mora / Ocean Exploration Trust

The men next to me on the couch represented some of the most intelligent, enterprising, experienced and powerful people in the United States. I sat quietly, absorbing what was happening around me along with my role within it, when my wife’s words came to me: “You deserve to be there. They chose you because of who you are and what you can do! You belong with them.”

Among those on the couch with me, discussing a live video stream from the ocean floor playing on a nearby screen, was U.S. Rep. John Culberson. Next to him was Dr. Richard Murray, director of the National Science Foundation’s Division of Ocean Sciences.

At the end of the couch sat Dr. Robert Ballard, perhaps best known for his discoveries of deep-sea geothermal vents and the wreckage of notable ships such as the Titanic and PT-109. He is founder and president of the Ocean Exploration Trust, which operates the Nautilus and the Science Communication Fellowship that allowed me a berth aboard it.

Onscreen was video of what looked like a hot-air balloon, held to the seabed by silvery tendrils. If the tendrils broke, the creature would float away like a dirigible whose ropes were let loose by mistake. We chatted casually about the surreal creature, which a scientist identified as a type of siphonophore, a most unusual colonial invertebrate.  

The crew and others aboard this 50-year-old ship includes 47 amazing people who together comprise the Corps of Exploration. They play many roles: piloting exploration vehicles; maintaining support equipment; training STEM interns; analyzing expedition data; navigation; engine operations; cooking; cleaning; communications; and more.

One of the most vital roles involves ensuring that people around the world can watch over our shoulders during the 24-hour-a-day exploration operations we’re conducting. For others to see our work, the technology transmitting images and audio across the globe must remain operational, even amid the challenges of operating from a ship far from shore in pitching ocean swells.   

That work pays off when the ship can share images like those on our screens at the moment. As the live video shifted, so did our conversation, to urchins, eels, myriad invertebrates, and sedimentary geological formations. The video came from two unmanned remotely operated vehicles, Hercules and Argus, that were exploring 400 meters below the surface.  Dr. Ballard explained details of the life and geology we were seeing, punctuated with jokes and anecdotes from previous expeditions.  

After a few minutes, the anxiety dissolved, and I focused on our mission. We were northwest of tiny Santa Barbara Island, a part of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.  Santa Barbara Island was our first destination on a three-week expedition visiting unexplored areas off the coast of southern California. We plan to look more closely at unmapped, unsurveyed areas of the National Marine Sanctuary to better understand and catalogue their ecological diversity, geology, and mineralogy.  

Luis Mora / Ocean Exploration Trust

However, our trip’s primary mission, which excites me even more, is seeking evidence of California’s submerged paleocoastlines.

These ancient coastlines date back as far as 20,000 years ago, during the Last Glacial Maximum, when sea levels were 400 feet lower than today. Back then, far more of the Earth’s water was locked in ice caps that covered significant parts of the surface.

In some places, this ancient ice was more than 10,000 feet (two miles!) thick. Over the subsequent millennia, changing climate has caused a series of melting events, raising sea levels to their current positions.  

As we seek evidence of these ancient coastlines, the state-of-the-art technology on E/V Nautilus will transport us back in time, so we can better understand our origins, and perhaps our future.

Dr. Ballard explained that these ancient submerged coasts can provide critical information useful in understanding climate change of the past, so we can better understand what’s happening with current climate changes.

This is where I come into the picture, sharing what we learn with the public. As a Science Communication Fellow, one of my roles is to contextualize what is happening on Nautilus for audiences across the world.

Luis Mora / Ocean Exploration Trust

My goal is to educate and inspire future explorers, scientists, engineers, and professionals to venture into other uncharted waters, both actual and metaphorical. I will show how humans can come together to do incredible things.Yes, science is messy and failure sometimes the path to success, but my goal is to help others understand the beauty and importance of the oceans. I hope my writing can encourage others to help preserve the oceans’ health and sustainability for our descendants.   

As an educator, I strive daily to inspire my students. The Ocean Exploration Trust team chose me to do more of the same for a broader audience as part of their mission to educate the world about the oceans. They welcomed me aboard with open arms and big smiles.  

It is now almost zero-twenty hours and my first watch is about to begin. There is a beautiful sunset ahead of us, the wind is blowing, the ROVs are in the water, and the unexplored ocean below us awaits. Butterflies flutter in my stomach but I know I will be fine. I belong here. In fact, we all do.

Luis Mora / Ocean Exploration Trust

Please join all of us here on E/V Nautilus during this expedition. Be part of the discoveries throughout this season (24/7 exploration until the end of November). Follow the adventure on social media on Facebook and Instagram as NautilusLive and on Twitter as @EVNautilus. Send in your questions and comments you will hear us discuss them live all by visiting www.nautiluslive.org.


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