The Nautilus Exploration Program focuses on three main areas of marine science: biology, geology, and archeology. No matter what area a particular cruise focuses on, the Corps of Exploration is ready for whatever they may come across in the depths of the sea. Over 95% of the ocean is unexplored, and that number approaches 100% for its deepest regions where the Nautilus team does most of their work. Above all else, Nautilus lives up to its title as an "Exploration Vessel" - each cruise has specific objectives, but the path changes constantly throughout the season as new discoveries come to light.
Life in the deep sea is beautiful, unfamiliar, and awe-inspiring. Much of Nautilus's biological research focuses on communities that are all three - chemosynthetic ecosystems. Unlike most ecosystems on land and in shallow waters, these communities are not based around sunlight. Instead, bacteria transform chemicals released by geological processes in the Earth's crust into energy. These bacteria form the base of an ecosystem that can include far more complex creatures like tube worms, mussels, and shrimp. Since their initial discovery on the East Pacific Rise in the late 1970s these chemosynthetic communities have been discovered around the world. Nautilus has examined these organisms in locations ranging from the Eratosthenes Seamount in the Mediterranean to the Galapagos volcanic rift in the eastern Pacific Ocean.
Another major area of research is deep sea coral and the effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Scientists from ECOGIG have returned to the same coral sites every year since the spill to study the long term effects of the oil on the coral and their associated communities. They are also noting the effects of natural gas seeps on the coral to better understand what might make some corals more resistant to oil spills than others.
Every Nautilus cruise also sees its fair share of marine megafauna. No matter what the main goal of the cruise is the Corps of Exploration will always stop to examine fish, cephalopods, sea cucumbers, crustaceans, sharks, and more.
While much of the seafloor is relatively calm and stable, the areas at tectonic plate boundaries are far from it. The same forces that create and destroy sections of the Earth's crust produce volcanoes, hydrothermal vents, geologic hazards, and more. These phenomena range from beautiful and benign to potentially deadly, and, like everything else miles below the surface, much remains unknown to scientists. Nautilus hosts scientists studying all facets of marine geology, all trying to better understand the mysteries of the Earth.
The processes that form hydrothermal vents are complicated, beginning when water is forced beneath the Earth's crust. It is superheated by tectonic forces and loaded with chemicals before jetting back out into the open ocean. Those chemicals precipitate in the cold ocean water to form beautiful chimneys and spires. Nautilus has visited hydrothermal vent sites around the world, from the gold and silver filled spires deep in crater of the Kolumbo volcano to the shrimp-covered towers of the Mid-Cayman Rise.
While exploring in the Caribbean, much of the Earth systems research of the Nautilus Exploration Program focused on geologic hazard sites. These are areas of the seafloor that could be prone to earthquakes or landslides that could have devastating effects on land through the generation of deadly tsunamis. Scientists hope that the data gathered by Nautilus will potentially lead to improved methods of predicting these catastrophic events in the future.
Humans have been sailing the global ocean in one form or another for over 7,000 years. Throughout those long centuries, thousands and thousands of ships have been brought beneath the waves by weather, by war, by mutiny. The seafloor provides an often untouched record of human history, and is a veritable treasure trove for archeologists looking to learn a little bit more about the complex saga of humanity.
For its first few years of exploration E/V Nautilus was based in the Black, Mediterranean, and Aegean Seas. These bodies of water are home to some of the most ancient shipwrecks ever discovered. During those short three years Nautilus looked at over 50 shipwrecks, ranging from 2,000 year old merchant vessels to a World War II-era aircraft. Many of the most ancient shipwrecks are defined by their amphora, the clay pots used by ancient civilizations to ship wines, oils, nuts, and more. Thanks to the oxygen-depleted waters of the Black Sea, many of the ships there have been untouched by decomposing bacteria.
Since moving into the Western Hemisphere, Nautilus has been involved in one major shipwreck site - the Monterrey Wrecks. After the archeological team recovered a number of artifacts from the original known wreck, Monterrey A, the ship moved on to visit two previously unexplored sonar targets to reveal two new shipwrecks, Monterrey B and C respectively. The three 19th century ships all sunk within a mile of one another, raising even more questions for archeologists.
The future holds more archeology for E/V Nautilus as the Corps of Exploration visits U-Boat sites, downed oil tankers, and more.