Ocean Exploration, “Olympic-Style”

Boundary map for the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary- yellow dots outline sanctuary waters. Image credit: NOAA Sanctuaries.

From August 18, 2017, to September 3, 2017, the E/V Nautilus will be exploring the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary (NMS), located along the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state.  The sanctuary encompasses 3,189 square miles (8,260 km2), an area equivalent to the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.  It extends 25 to 50 miles (40 to 80 km) from the shore, including most of the continental shelf, as well as three important submarine canyons: the Nitinat Canyon, the Quinault Canyon and the Juan de Fuca Canyon.  The main objectives of this expedition are to explore and characterize seafloor resources and features associated with these submarine canyons. Quinault and Quileute Canyons have never been explored by remotely operated vehicle (ROV) or autonomous underwater vehicle ( AUV).

Another important expedition objective is to collect information about the ocean’s chemical and physical properties and associated biological communities. The Olympic Coast marks the northern reach of the California Current, which seasonally upwells deep, nutrient-rich waters nearshore.  This process supports the sanctuary’s highly productive ecosystem. Twenty-nine species of marine mammals reside in or migrate through sanctuary waters; the area provides critical nesting habitat for numerous seabird species; and the region is also among the most productive fish-growing habitats in the world.  However, due to ocean acidification (a continued decrease in the global ocean’s pH, caused by the uptake of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere), the California Current is now also delivering low-pH, and often low-oxygen (hypoxic), waters to the region, which can negatively impact many marine species.  The Olympic Coast NMS is thus considered a “sentinel site” for ocean acidification.  Monitoring and research take place to enhance the understanding of natural and historical resources in the area and how they are changing, as well as provide and early warning capability to detect changes to the ecosystem itself.   

Map showing major ocean currents along the Pacific coast of North America. Note coastal upwelling associated with the California Current, in red. Map credit: NOAA.

In addition to its ecological richness, the Olympic Coast NMS sanctuary is also culturally and historically rich. Over 200 shipwrecks are documented in sanctuary waters!  The Makah, Quileute, and Hoh Tribes, as well as Quinault Nation, all have strong, historical ties to the region.  NOAA sanctuary staff work cooperatively with the tribes to strengthen sanctuary resources and respect the longstanding relationship of coastal Native Americans with the marine environment.

Live video from the Olympic Coast NMS expedition will be broadcast on the Nautilus Live and Inner Space Center websites.  ROV dives should start August 19, 2017!  For more information about this expedition and the Olympic Coast NMS, visit the Nautilus Live expedition webpage, and the Olympic Coast NMS website. And be sure to follow the ISC on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube for more updates and discoveries from the E/V Nautilus and the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer!  Explore with us!

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