From Surface to Abyss: Life in the Marianas Trench

Latest update January 21, 2017 Started on December 8, 2016

Join me as I journey to the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands to talk about biodiversity, citizen science, and emerging technology against the backdrop of the Marianas Trench.

December 8, 2016
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It's about time! If you didn't want to sit through hours of raw dive footage, here's the highlight video from our incredible adventure.

A small request:

I've now uploaded over 4 hours of dive video to YouTube and I';m working my way through them to pull out the best moments for a highlight video. If you've watched any of them and have a particular moment that you think would be great for the highlight reel, please leave a comment below with the video and time stamp so that I can go back and find it. Thank you!

Onward and downward.

The final video! At least of all the long format dives. We finished off with nearly an hour and a half in the big tank at the Underwater World of Guam.

The Rota video is now edited and up. One more and I can start working on the highlight reel.

At last, the complete video from our dive at Taga Beach on Tinian. Some interesting fish, some very interesting debris, and lots of fun had by the high schoolers invited to fly the robot.

Still working hard getting all the HD videos edited and uploaded. Here's a short dive in high current off Sugar Dock, in glorious high definition. The new camera upgrade makes a huge difference.

This is great. I love the music. Perfect for underwater videos.

HD video from our second dive in the Grotto. Much shorter, but if you watch the fish, you can see how intense the surge was.

Looks like a ton of fun Andrew!

Here's the HD video from our first dive in the Grotto.

Still working on getting all the video we shot edited and uploaded in glorious HD. In the meantime, enjoy this short video of our flight from Tinian back to Saipan. After an exhaustive Google search, I am fairly confident that, at barely 8 minutes, this is the second shortest regularly scheduled commercial flight route in the the United States. The shortest is another tiny island hopper in Hawaii.

In The Field

If I had to do it all over again, the University of Guam Marine Lab looks like a pretty epic place to get a masters.

All told, these last two weeks we gave >20 talks, reached almost 1000 grade school students on four islands, gave about 40 students a chance to pilot the ROV, did public talks to packed rooms on Saipan and Guam, were featured on radio, TV news, and in print, ate several pounds of chicken keleguin, and visited some of the most beautiful oceanscapes I've ever seen.


Our final event of the trip: a visit to the University of Guam Marine Lab to talk deep-sea science and the Mariana Trench with masters students. After 12 days of talks tailored to grade school students or the general public, we took the opportunity to get extra nerdy. We discussed the role of fossil oxygen in chemosynthesis, shark shunts and microbial mediation in coral reefs, and apparently an ocean spanning collective science crush on Forest Rohwer. Seriously, read Coral Reefs in the Microbial Seas. It's a page turner.

And, of course, we finished it all off with a chance for everyone to try their hand piloting ROV Trusty.


Trust the Kids

How do you keep your students so engaged? I probably get this question more than any other when talking about my robotics workshops with other educators. It's not surprising. Whether it's in-depth ROV building workshops or just an afternoon underwater robot experience, I always seem to attract active, engaged students who are committed to the project.

With almost all outreach, there's no magic bullet, no one-special-trick that makes everything work. Outreach is a slow, steady push for broader and deeper education about your topic. But in this case, there actually is one simple thing that makes all the difference.

Trust the kids.

After dozens of robot building workshops, and even more ROV piloting experiences, the one overwhelming factor that determines how much sudents get out of these events is how much trust you place in them. I've seen programs where the teachers hover over every step, double checking the students to make sure they don't make any mistakes. I've been to ROV-piloting events where students only get to watch as experienced pilots drive an ROV around. This is the least constructive way to do things.

Students will make mistakes during an ROV build. That's fine. The best possible outcome is for them to figure out how to correct their errors with minimum input. More often though, they build tough, functional robots that go on to contribute to serious scientific research. The goal of the workshop isn't just to build a working robot, but to use the build as a vehicle for even deeper engagement with science and technology. If all you want is the bot, just hire me to build it (actually, hire Marius. I'm really all about the student workshops).

During ROV-experiences, I tend to be even less intrusive. After a brief overview of the controls, I like to step completely away and let the students learn how the bot behaves by trial and error. They have a lot more fun when an instructor is not hovering over them.

"But Andrew," you might ask "Aren't you worried about your gear?" Not really, no. In three years of doing this, I've never had a single issue with student pilots. The only time I ever lost a robot, I was the pilot.

"What about damage to the environment?" This is the kind of issue that you address in advance, by picking a site that isn't going to be harmed by some enthusiastic ROVing. Highly impacted areas like boat launches and well-trafficked beaches are great places to start. I don't raise the thrust factor up above 3 unless the students are doing really well, an I always do a little survey first to make sure there's no sensative habitat around.

Everything about coordinating, organizing, and implementing a robot building workshop for high school students is wickedly complicated, but this is one component that really is just that simple. When in doubt, trust the students.


It's our final day on the island and the final event of our journey through Guam and the Northern Marianas Islands. Soon we'll be boarding our planes and making the long flight back to the mainland. Until then, good morning from Guam!


A nice treat for our first (mostly) day off during the trip. We returned to Ritidian Point and got a private tour of the ancient Chamorro latte stone sites and a rare chance to see thousand-year-old pictograms left int he Star Cave.

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We made an impromptu visit to the JFK High School Robotics class Monday morning and were blown away by the students, who were in the process of coding autonomous vehicles. The next generation of robot engineers, right here!


Angelo made friends with a grouper while we were diving in the Underwater World of Guam.


I didn't manage to get any pictures, but we gave a talk at War in the Pacific National Park to a packed crowd of adults and kids, and got some of the best questions of the entire trip. A great group and a ton of fun.

Afterwards we convened at the Underwater World of Guam, where Trusty did its final dive of the trip, an hour and half cruising through the big centerpiece tank of the exhibit, with plenty of ROV piloting opportunities for the guests.

Once I'm back on the mainland and have high-speed internet, I'll put up the dive video (and all the others).

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Sunday was our busiest day of the trip, with a visit to the Ritidian Point National Wildlife Refuge to meet with the new director, followed by talks, dives, more talks, and a great evening at the Underwater World of Guam Aquarium.


Good morning from Guam! Island number 4 in our adventure across the Pacific.


A view of Garapan, from the top of Mt. Tapochau, the highest point on the island.


What is a Saipanda? This is a Saipanda.

Yeah, I don't really know either.

Angelo has more: Gomen na Saipanda


We've earned a little bit of media attention out here in the last week, including an article in the Saipan Tribune: Marine scientists talks about Marianas Trench at Rotary and we'll be on the radio this Sunday: Marianas Trench Marine National Monument to be discussed on ‘Your Humanities Half-Hour’.

Though I'm pretty sure that there are no "Giant Anthropoids" in the deep-sea. Giant Amphipods, however, are abundant.

Another week eating the delicious food in CNMI and I might become a giant anthropoid.

Rick's photos from Forbidden Island capture a bit more of the excitement.

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Our first "day off" after a long week of talking to students and stakeholders. We took a hike out to Forbidden Island to enjoy the beach and do some snorkeling.

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Dive 5: Rota

A short clip from an over-an-hour-long dive, with students driving almost the entire time.

Nothing quite like an impromptu Ukelele session while driving underwater robots.


We had a great group of students show up to pilot the OpenROV, and using the van as a staging area meant people could actually see the screen and fly off the laptop rather than watching the robot.

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Setting up our control van for the next ROV piloting experience.

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Rota is home to the latte stone quarry where the largest latte stones were cut, but never lifted or finished. Where they were headed to or why the Chamorro people stopped before they finished is one of those mysteries lost to antiquity.

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I've been trying to keep everything in chronological order, but now there's a pretty big backlog of videos and photos and with connectivity being unreliable, I think it's best if we just keep pushing forward and just backtrack every so often.

We're in Rota today, talking to students from Rota Junior and Senior High Schools. But first, we had a few hours to explore the island and experience some of its history. The remains of this Shinto shrine at the Rota Peace Park are fascinating. On one face, white encrusting lichens dominate the rock. On the other, red fructicose lichens and bromeliads cover the stone. They are separated by maybe half a meter. It's really cool to see these kinds of microbiomes.


Dive 4: Tinian

After talking to students at Tinian Junior Senior High School, we invited them down to the beach to drive the robot and get a better understanding of how research is conducted using underwater robots in shallow and deep-sea ecosystems.

These kids were some of our best ROV pilots. A short clip from the long dive, with just a bit of exploration and ecology, below:

Latte Stones

Latte stones are the pillars used by native Chamorros as supports for their houses. Large pillars capped with flat topped hemispheres act as the foundation for a wooden structure on top. Latte stones are found throughout the Marianas Islands, but one of the most impressive latte stone ruins is the Taga house in Tinian.

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Tinian is notable for being the island from which the Enola Gay took off from to drop the first and second atomic bombs every deployed in war. The bombs were so massive that they couldn't be simply loaded onto the plane. Special pits were constructed that allowed each bomb to be lifted into an aircraft parked above. The runways and bomb pits are still there, preserved as a permanent reminder to the horror that atomic weapons unleashed upon the world.

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Tinian is the smaller island to the south of Saipan. We took a Piper Cub across the channel to present at the Tinian Junior Senior High School. Arriving early, we had the chance to tour some beaches, get our car stuck in the sand, successfully egress the vehicle, and head deep into the Tinian jungle, where relics of the Second World War are slowly being reclaimed.


After a hard days work, we got to sit and enjoy the sunset from a nice, cool, beachfront bar.

For those wondering, the weather hasn't exactly cooperated with us for the last couple of days, so we haven't been able to do dive ops, but we're hoping to dive the robot again on Tinian, tomorrow.


I've traveled the world talking science, outreach, and conservation to a lot of different students, scientists, and stakeholders, and there's nothing quite like being the lead story on the local news.

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After the Rotary Club, we headed down to the local TV station to give some interviews about our science and the value of the Mariana Trench Monument.


Continuing the education tour, we talked about coral reefs, science communication, and OpenROV workshops with the Saipan Rotary Club, while showing off our underwater robot to a new crowd. Lots of great ideas from the group about ways access to underwater robot can benefit the community.


Obligatory ROV Selfie from Saipan International High School.


Next stop, Saipan International High School, to talk about the incredible biodiversity of the Mariana Trench.

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Obligatory ROV Selfie from Saipan Southern High School.


We visited Saipan Southern to talk to high school students about the wonders of the Mariana Trench and show them how small, open-source robots can contribute to science, conservation, and tourism in CNMI.

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Rick, Angelo, and I spent the morning on Power 99's Your Humanities Half Hour with Catherine Harris to talk about the Monument, all the incredible science happening in the Mariana Trench, and the research and education programs we run with OpenROV.


We closed out our first full day in Saipan with a sunset walk down the beach and dinner with friends old and new.

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Raw video from Dive 3. Check out the huge sea cucumber at 0:10!

In the afternoon, we headed out to the beach near the Saipan Surf Club for a barbecue followed by some OpenROV diving off the local fishing pier. The current was kicking, so we settled the bot on the bottom and watched schools of fish swim by.

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During an exciting morning diving the OpenROV in the Grotto, with plenty of children around to watch and fly the robot, Rick had the misfortune of jumping in the water with his smartphone, so Angelo wrote a song about it.

On our way to the next event, we stopped at Bird Island and were lucky enough to see five sea turtles hanging out in the water below.


Dive 2 at the Grotto. Short and sweet.

Diving the Grotto

Here's the unedited footage from our first dive in the Grotto using the experimental HD camera rig. Video upload is low resolution due to bandwidth limitations our here, but you should see the uncompressed images. This camera setup is amazing.

When it comes to ROV operations, I enforce the Outreach Prime Directive: If there are kids around, they get to drive the robot.


Shakedown Dives

We arose early this morning to beat the crowds to the Grotto, an enclosed cavern connected to the sea by submerged tunnels. There, we met up with our diver and several representatives who had worked on the Mariana Trench Monument and showed off our little robot.

Shakedown dives are critical after a long flight, to make sure that all the systems are still working. We had a few software issues, but it was otherwise a fantastic morning of diving. More pictures and video to come.

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Wow! That looks beautiful!

Good Morning from Saipan!

The robot is prepped and ready to go. We're heading out to the Grotto for our fist dive of the trip!

After a long day of travel, the last thing you want is for your ROV to flood on the first dive. If a well built ROV with a proven record is going to flood, it's going to be on that first dive. So check your systems, take it easy, and keep that first shakedown dive after a long journey shallow and gentle.


Stop one: Houston.

One question I get a lot is "how do you handle airport security when carrying all this weird gear? Aren't you worried they'll refuse to let you on?"

There's always the chance that you'll get that one overly skeptical security agent that won't let you carry on your gear, but it hasn't happened to me yet. This month's Make: magazine has a large spread of airport security horror stories, but they are still few and far between.

There are a few steps you can take to make things easier.

(This is all predicated on the fact that I am an able-bodied white man, the demographic group least likely to incur additional airport scrutiny. And that's really point 1: the member of your team with the most privilege should carry the gear most likely to arouse suspicion.)

The longest security delay I've had carrying gear is an hour and a half, so now I always plan for that and arrive two hours early if I have an OpenROV in tow. I pack it in a clean, professional looking case. And I dress at minimum, business casual, more often in a crisp button down, slacks, and blazer. Expect security to search your case (OpenROVs look weird in the x-ray. Frankly, I get concerned when they don't search it.) If you're on an education and outreach expedition, this is an outreach opportunity. Practice getting someone excited about underwater exploration.

Sometimes I'll call ahead, especially if I'm traveling with more exotic gear, and let the TSA know I'm coming and what I'm bringing (I do this with scientific samples too, obviously). And some gear I just dont try to fly with. OpenCTDs just don't look kosher and life is easier for everyone if you mail them ahead.


Here's a challenge for you: with less than a week of prep time, what's the bare minimum gear you'd need to take an ROV to the Northern Marianas Islands, to run an education and outreach experience for students of all ages, diving in pools, aquarium tanks, protected lagoons, and possibly open water?

Oh, and everything has to fit as a carry-on, including all the luggage you need to look like a professional for two weeks.

Here's my ROV Kit:

  • OpenROV 2.8 (Trusty) with HD camera upgrade
  • Spare ROV brain (for fast swapping in the event of catastrophic failure)
  • Spare end cap (because you never know)
  • 2 sets of replacement o-rings, ranger bands, screws, battery tube caps
  • Vacuum pump (for sealing tight and reducing moisture inside the electronis tube)
  • Hemostat (super useful for a million different problems, TSA approved)
  • Gamepad (Kids love flying with it)
  • Topside box (small tools, 2 topside adapters, silicon lube, SD card with software, cables, electrical tape)
  • Battery chargers (not shown)

This is about as bare bones as I've ever traveled with while still feeling confident I have everything I need to get the job done.


Just wait until you get your Trident! It's so portable, it makes you think you're forgetting everything.

No super glue?!

I don't need no super glue. I don't need no duck tape. I am one with the machine.

In Saipan, I'll be joining up with Angelo Villagomez, the godfather of the Mariana Trench Monument (@taotaotasi) and Rick MacPherson (@rmacpherson), who is responsible for this photoshopped creation.


Photoshopped? That photo was taken as you stepped out of the Ministry of Abyssal Exploration and Hadal Enchantment.

The Marianas Trench

At 11,000 meters, the Marianas Trench is the deepest point on our planet. Only 2 human-occupies vehicles and 2 remotely-operated vehicles have ever reached the bottom of the Trench. Trieste was retired decades ago, after a long and illustrious career; Kaiko was lost overboard during Typhoon Chan-Hom; Nereus imploded on its second expedition into the Trench; and James Cameron's Deepsea Challenger was severely damaged in a fire during transport.

Today there are more vehicles that have left the solar system than can dive to the bottom of the deepest ocean.

Unlike deep space, the deep sea is teaming with life. The Marianas Trench lies in the middle of a biodivesity hotspot. From glass-eyed cat sharks to enigmatic chimera to playful squat lobster to the magestic, awe-inspiring power of a hydrothermal vent, the Marianas Trench is bursting with life.

There are few things that gie me more joy than to share the wonder of the deep sea with the world.

Tomorrow I set off for the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands and Guam to join a team of passionate ocean scientist and ocean advocates to help tell the story of the Marianas Trench. In collaboration with the Pew Global Ocean Legacy program, I will be talking to students, scientists, and citizens about the incredible life the thrives in the deepest ocean, as well as my work with developing new technologies to reshape the way researchers, citizen scientists, and explorers study the sea.

I will be bringing with me Trusty, an OpenROV 2.8 built by high school students from the Gloucester High robotics team--the Robodukes--from Gloucester, Virginia, that I've upgraded with an experimental HD camera rig. Weather permitting, we'll be diving on some shallow seamounts at the edge of the Trench, glimpsing coral formations that lie beneath the reach of professional SCUBA divers.

Join me as we journey to the Marinas Trench, from surface to abyss!


Are you crossing paths with R/V Falkor at all? They've been live streaming some wicked trench vent dives today.

Sadly, no. They're pretty far from us right now, and they have important ocean science to do.

Expedition Background

Rick, Angelo, and I spent the morning on Power 99's Your Humanities Half Hour with Catherine Harris to talk about the Monument, all the incredible science happening in the Mariana Trench, and the research and education programs we run with OpenROV.


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