We can’t all hitch rides with James Cameron to the bottom of the ocean. But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is offering virtual trips to Neptune’s realm during a mission of the Okeanos Explorer research vessel.

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This month and next, armchair argonauts can see through the eyes of Little Hercules, a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), as it explores the depths of the northern Gulf of Mexico.

Live camera feeds from the ROV allow oceanographers to go deep without getting their feet wet. The video feeds are also available for anyone at home who’s jealous of Cameron’s abyssal sojourn. A news feed allows vicarious explorers to keep up to date on the mission.

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The NOAA team has several goals on this mission.

Marine Archeology: Since the days of the Spanish Empire, ships have been sailing and sinking in the Gulf of Mexico. Extensive oil and gas exploration has resulted in detailed sonar maps of over 600 shipwrecks, and the Okeanos Explorer team hopes to observe some of the wrecks directly.

Macondo Well Observation: Another consequence of oil and gas drilling in the Gulf was the massive oil spill caused by BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster. The NOAA team hopes to directly observe the effects of the devastating spill on deep sea coral and other species.

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Exploration: The deep sea is a mysterious place, and the oceanographers anticipate encountering unstudied ecosystems and possibly discovering new species.


A squat lobster (right) sitting next to a crinoid (left). This crinoid waved to us with its long, feathery arms as the ROV Little Hercules was about to leave bottom. Crinoids are quite nimble, some are even known to uproot themselves and walk along the seafloor! (Image and caption courtesy of the NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program)

A ‘pregnant’ coral. This is an octocoral, as evidenced by the eight tentacles you can see on its polyps. The white dots you see in its almost translucent body may be developing embryos – baby corals. (Image and caption courtesy of the NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program.)