Deep-sea biologist Rhian Waller in front of the research vessel Okeanos Explorer.
Deep-sea biologist Rhian Waller is participating in an expedition aboard the American research vessel Okeanos Explorer.

Deep sea expedition looks for new species off Alaska


Currently, a research expedition is underway to discover new species and seabed environments off the coast of Alaska. An expedition in which all interested parties are invited to participate. Rhian Waller, a deep-sea biologist at the Department of Marine Sciences, is one of the researchers on board:
"Being the first to see something completely new and being able to share it with the world is very rewarding," she says.

Much is still unknown about the ocean. Less than a quarter of the world's seabed has been mapped using modern methods, and only a few per cent of the ecosystems have been studied in detail. Rhian Waller is joining an expedition organised by the US agency NOAA Ocean Exploration, which is dedicated to mapping the ocean's 'white spots'.

"Through these maps the program has revised ocean depths and discovered whole new seafloor features we never knew existed. The mapping data is important to biologists, geologists and oceanographers, so it has a lot of value", says Rhian Waller. 

Dramatic seabed with plenty of corals and sponges

Rhian Waller is a deep-sea biologist researching corals and sponges in cold and deep seas. Her research has taken her to places like Chile, Antarctica and to the deep-sea areas off the coast of Alaska. Now she is looking forward to exploring the Aleutian Islands, a chain of islands that form an arc from Alaska in the US to Kamchatka in Russia. This area is known for its dramatic bottom topography with deep-sea trenches, seamounts and volcanoes. Previous studies suggest that there are plenty of corals and sponges here.

Orange red corals on the seabed.
Corals form three-dimensional environments in the deep sea that are very important for fish and many other species that live there. The photo shows the red tree coral Primnoa pacifica.
Photo: Deepwater Exploration of Glacier Bay National Park expedition and UCONN-NURTEC

"In which environments do you find different species, which species live together and how rare are they, are some of the questions. There is also the hope of finding new species and mapping their distribution", says Rhian Waller.

Live broadcast from a depth of 6,000 meters

The expedition vessel, the Okeanos Explorer, is specially equipped for deep-sea studies. On board is a large underwater robot that is remotely controlled from the boat and equipped with video cameras. During this expedition, 23 dives are planned with the robot, down to a maximum depth of 6,000 metres. The dives will be filmed and sent via a cable up to the ship so that researchers on board can see the seabed. The films are also sent to a satellite and broadcast live around the world via a website on the internet.

The underwater robot D2 in the deep.
The remotely-controlled robot D2 can go down to a depth of 6,000 metres and is equipped with high-resolution cameras and bright lights. It also has two strong arms that are used to collect organisms.
Photo: NOAA Ocean Exploration

What's special about Okeanos Explorer expeditions is that even scientists who are not on board can participate. On this trip, Rhian Waller is one of two scientists on the ship, but anyone who wants to can take part in the planning. They will then be in contact with Rhian Waller and her colleague during the trip.

– It is our job to communicate with the scientists onshore to coordinate where to dive and what to sample. They can communicate with us on the ship either by phone or by a science chat room. Sometimes you can have hundreds of scientists onshore from around the world participating in a dive, so you get a lot of great information to coordinate!"

Interest from the public is inspiring

In addition to scientists, the public, i.e. anyone, can join the expedition! On the website you can follow the ship to see where they are exploring, and even watch the dive video live from the seabed together with the scientists.

"Throughout these exploration cruises thousands of people participate watching the live video and sending questions to the ship. It’s something I really enjoy! My own field, reproductive ecology, is a fairly narrow one, so anytime I get to translate deep-sea science to the public I get quite excited and reinvigorated for what I do" says Rhian Waller.

Three scientists in the operating room surrounded by computor screens.
From the operating room, the scientists control the underwater robot, communicate with scientists participating in the expedition from ashore, and answer questions from the general public.
Photo: NOAA Ocean Exploration

The deep sea important for whole ocean health

The deep sea is an environment with extreme conditions: dark and cold, with high pressure from the surrounding water, and in the very deepest areas, completely oxygen-free environments where life relies on chemical energy sources such as hydrogen or methane.

"Exploration is a really important part of marine science. Through exploration we now know the deep sea is connected to the surface ocean, and an incredibly important part of whole ocean health. Ocean exploration is a key part of the puzzle to understanding the planet as a whole", says Rhian Waller.

Alaska and the Aleutian Islands are far away. Travelling back and forth, Rhian Waller will be away for more than a month. But this is not the first time she has been on a research trip far from home. She has, among other things, been on a previous expedition on the Ocean Explorer, so she knows what to expect.

"It can be hard to be away from the family, but I can video call my family each day. When you are working really long hours without rest days – we work evenings and weekends – the time flies quite quickly. Also, I am reminded just how exciting deep sea research is, so that is motivation."

Text: Susanne Liljenström

Map showing the planned route for Okeanos Explorer
The planned route of the research vessel Okeanos Explorer is from Kodiak to Unalaska, following the Aleutian Trench. Dots show where the underwater robot will dive and film.
Photo: NOAA Ocean Exploration
Join the expedition!

Click to follow live what happens on the Okeanos Exploer

On the website you can follow the ship to see where they are exploring, and even watch the dive video livefilms from the seabed together with Rhian Waller and her collegues. Dives are streamed from approximately 18:00 to 02:00 Swedish time (with the exception of a few days dedicated to transiting to new locations). You can also watch afterwards by rewinding the playback slider.