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Trinidad & Tobago Ocean Exploration

April 27 2018

Many nations have deep-sea and mesophotic environments within their maritime Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), yet only a small portion have a way to explore them. This is especially true for lesser economically developed countries. This dearth of technological capability and knowledge leads to a lack of exploration, inappropriate or inadequate management decisions, and unaware populations. Our goal is to empower countries to explore their own deep-sea backyards using low-cost technology, while building lasting in-country capacity.

April 27 2018


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Preparation Stage

Early Tuesday morning, we assembled at the Faculty of Science and Technology (FST) board room at UWI St. Augustine Campus. There was an icebreaker introduction session among participants from the Inter-American Development Bank, Tobago House of Assembly, and the University of the West Indies’ Mona, Cave Hill and St. Augustine Campuses. I personally loved hearing everyone’s backgrounds, especially as each person brought a different perspective to the table at the ‘My Deep Sea, My Backyard - Trinidad and Tobago’ project.

Afterwards, we walked across to the campus’s pool, took the Trident ROV out and began working our way through the pre-dive checklist. The set up was quick and easy, however, as we placed the Trident ROV into the pool, we quickly realized that it was sinking. Oops - the weights were still attached after being used in salty water in Narragansett Bay by Katy so the vehicle was too heavy. After a quick adjustment back ‘onshore’, the Trident ROV was ready to go! The group of approximately 15 persons, then took turns experimenting with the ROV. The joke of the day, was that the tilt down for the controls, required an upward movement on the tablet and the tilt up, required a downward movement. This was completely the opposite of what we expected!

COAST Foundation introduced everyone to the Blue Robotics ROV, which was controlled by a game controller as compared to the touch screen tablet for the Trident ROV. It was exciting and new to most of us and we quickly realized the frequent gamers had an obvious advantage! After the practical session in the pool, we were treated to a tour of the UWI Museum of Zoology. Lots of very interesting specimens from around the islands.

The afternoon session was lead by Alan Turchik of National Geographic, who went through the setup, deployment and data collection for the Drop Camera. However, we didn’t have all the parts for the Drop Camera (fingers crossed that we will get them soon) but I think the group got a good grasp of the new equipment. After, the team gathered around a map of Trinidad and Tobago to discuss ideas for areas for future deployments. It’s mind blowing that the discussions taking place in the boardroom of the Science and Technology Faculty at UWI will soon be put into action in the waters around Trinidad and Tobago!

This post was written by Laura-Ashley Henderson, a workshop participant and recent graduate from The University of the West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine Campus with a B.Sc. Biology with specializations in Marine Biology and Ecology and Environmental Biology.

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We have hiked through our forests. We have snorkeled and scuba dived every inch of our coral reefs. We have surveyed the homes of the monkeys, manatees and much more in our expansive swamps. Now in our own backyard, it is our chance to become adoring paparazzi to our mysterious deep-sea diversity in the unexplored oceans of Trinidad and Tobago.

Good day! I am Hannah, a recent biology graduate of the University of the West Indies, also welcoming you to “My Deep Sea, My Backyard”, the Trinidad and Tobago experience, which has officially begun.

The event which was launched Monday 13th August 2018, at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad, enraptured a large audience of mainly students and professionals focused on marine sciences, as well as local artists who were invited in hopes that the deep-sea discoveries may inspire beautiful masterpieces.

Local influential scientists and diplomats began the talks, all stressing the amazing opportunity being afforded, especially as the Trident ROV will remain in-country for continued use, as well as the massive benefit of this deep-sea research, which can potentially identify new resources for the Caribbean. The three pieces of deep-sea equipment, a Drop Camera (loaned by National Geographic), a Trident ROV (donated by OpenROV) and the Blue Robotics ROV (loaned by the Coast Foundation) were then briefly introduced. Group discussions were encouraged giving the opportunity for the audience to share their opinions on which areas off Trinidad the deployments would be most useful and potentially more successful.

The following day, I was fortunate to be part of a focus group with various regional professionals that gained experience in operating and deploying the equipment. This was exceptionally fun as it was a totally new experience. The Trident ROV, small and compact, zipped satisfyingly speedily and with great agility through the UWI pool. The Blue Robotics ROV, larger with more features, seemed to move at a slow and careful pace, giving an odd impression of the former being a child and the latter being the adult! Seeing the camera view on our screens while we tried to locate our “marine organism” (a pool brush) in the pool, excited me as to all the life we are going to observe during ocean deployments, especially those which may have never been seen before! Also, as I love working on research projects, I cannot wait to actually download video data from the deep-sea deployments over the next few months to learn about all the research avenues in which it can be used.

We also learned about the Drop Camera, which is thrilling due to the magnificent depths it can reach (6000m). We won’t need to go that deep though as the waters around Trinidad and Tobago only get to about 4000m depth. Working with the Drop Camera should be fascinating as it is not tethered. This also means that efforts to deploy it safely to ensure minimal drama and chasing or searching are a key priority. Alan went through the safety checklist with us in extreme detail, and I left with the warning “REMOVE MAGNETS BEFORE DEPLOYMENT!” well drilled into my head☺!

These last couple of days have tremendously increased my enchantment with the deep sea and I must say my expectations of what I hope to see have skyrocketed. Maybe mussel fields, maybe some “Hoff” crabs, hopefully coral gardens but whatever it is, it will be truly special, because it is ours, it is Trinidad and Tobago’s!

This post was written by Hannah Lochan, a workshop participant and recent graduate from The University of the West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine Campus with a B.Sc. Biology with Specialisations in Plant and Marine Biology

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After Katy, Judith, and Diva set the stage with a series of talks about the deep ocean, the history of deep-sea exploration, emerging ocean technologies, and the state of knowledge of the Trinidad and Tobago deep sea, we kicked into a lively community discussion about goals and priority locations for local exploration using the National Geographic Drop Cameras and Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs). In the room, we had artists, coastal engineers, government officials from marine and environmental sectors, energy industry stakeholders, science communicators, conservationists, students, and scientists — so there was no shortage of different interests, perspectives, and opportunities to learn from each other.

We broke into smaller, cross-disciplinary groups to give everyone a chance to get to know each other better and to encourage discussion. Our first question for the room was simple: what do you want to learn about the deep ocean right in your backyard? Participants were excited about a lot, including discovering new species, understanding relationships between ocean habitats, mapping the physical characteristics of the deep ocean, finding new resources for human use, collecting baseline data to document human impacts on the ocean — and yes, we all wanted to find the sea monsters, galleons, and marine diamonds!

Then each group was given a map of Trinidad and Tobago’s Exclusive Economic Zone (the area in which T&T has jurisdiction over) with bathymetric data showing the depth and shape of the seafloor, which they used to create Exploration Maps selecting drop sites for the camera and points of interest to explore with ROVs. Then they pinned up the maps so everyone could do a ‘gallery walk’ to see each other’s ideas and identify common themes across the plans.

Our last question to the room was perhaps the most fun: How can we encourage the public to get excited about and interested in ocean exploration? We heard so many creative ideas — a Carnival or jouvert band inspired by the deep sea, staging an underwater photography competition with the theme of “aliens on earth”, installing deep-sea photography exhibits in airports, setting up tax breaks for those who contribute to deep-sea exploration...and lots more!

After a full afternoon of great energy and conversation, we wrapped up a little early to give everyone a chance to make it home safely — in the middle of the afternoon it started raining buckets and there was some flooding around the island. Let’s hope the rain stops in time for our ocean deployments later this week!

Tomorrow we’ll be getting a smaller group trained up on the Drop Cams and ROVs at the university’s pool. Can’t wait!

This post was written by Alexis Hope of MIT Media Lab & MIT Center for Civic Media.

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I cannot begin to tell you how nervous I was on Monday 13th August 2018. Over the 45-minute car journey to the University of the West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine, I managed to chew off every single nail. This was my first time orchestrating a project of this magnitude, and more importantly, the first in my home country, Trinidad and Tobago, so making it a success was extra important. And to increase the pressure, Katy, Alexis, Alan and I barely got any sleep last night because of delayed flights and lost baggage. But despite all the nerves, I’m proud to report that the launch of ‘My Deep Sea, My Backyard – Trinidad and Tobago’ went extremely well!

The day was deep-sea-licious! The nearly-eighty attendees were greeted by deep-sea footage from across the Caribbean and an array of deep-sea samples from Trinidad and Tobago. For many, this was the first time they had ever seen anything like this! After warm greetings by Dr. Judith Gobin and Professor John Agard of the University of the West Indies, as well as Mr. Gerard Alleng of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), we were treated to a keynote speech by Mr. Eden Charles, former permanent representative to the United Nations for Trinidad and Tobago. The focal point of Eden’s talk were the linkages between ocean exploration and resource use, especially from a policy angle (which is his expertise). All speakers stressed the importance of the Blue Economy and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14. And of course, the launch culminated with the ‘My Deep Sea, My Backyard’ team, comprised of both local (UWI St. Augustine, SpeSeas, COAST Foundation, NIHERST) and foreign partners (National Geographic, IDB, MIT Media Lab, Boston University, OpenROV and DOSI) taking to the stage to introduce the project.

Lunch gave attendees a chance to recharge their energy levels, network, check out the deep-sea samples, and also decorate styrofoam cups! You’re probably wondering why on earth we would decorate styrofoam cups. Well, the deep ocean is a high-pressure environment — you gain one atmosphere of pressure for every 10 metres gained in depth. And styrofoam weighs barely anything because it has lots of air pockets. That combination means that when a styrofoam cup goes down into the depths attached to a piece of deep-sea equipment, the immense pressure squeezes all the air out, resulting in the cup shrinking to the size of a thimble! Check out #shrunkencupoff on Twitter for lots and lots of pictures of awesome shrunken cups created by deep-sea scientists all over the world! Over the next three months of deployments, these cups will be sent into the deep attached to the National Geographic Drop Camera, shrunken during the journey and then recovered and returned to the rightful owner, providing a reminder of their dabble in the deep ocean.

In our next blog, Alexis Hope will talk about the afternoon session on Monday which included deep-sea lectures and a participatory workshop on opportunities for deep-sea exploration in the region.

This post was written by Diva Amon of SpeSeas, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Natural History Museum, London, UK.

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I received the Trident ROV in the mail two days ago!! The little remotely operated vehicle (ROV) was generously donated by OpenROV to the 'My Deep Sea, My Backyard - Trinidad and Tobago' project.

We were cutting it a bit close for testing should I have any problems, so I plugged it in straight away to get the vehicle charged up. Randi Rotjan also advised that I fire up the tablet that we’d be using for the controller, download the OpenROV app, and pair it to the Trident. The set up worked perfectly, and I was even able to give the motors a spin on the kitchen counter!

The long (100 m) tether arrived yesterday afternoon, and today I packed up the little red wagon to take everything down to the beach and get it in the water.

We would be diving in the salty waters of Narragansett Bay, which would make the vehicle more buoyant than it would be in fresh water. So, I asked my daughter, Roxa, to screw on the trim weights before we brought the Trident down to the dock.

Lifejackets on, we hauled everything down to the dock and got ourselves set up. First, we attached the short (25 m) tether, waited until all three LEDs turned on, and opened up the app. The cardboard shipping box served as handy protection against the glaring sun. Note to self for future operational design considerations: it’s tough to see the video on the tablet without some shade.

We tested the motors one last time on the dock, placed her in the water, and off she went! The Trident ROV is pretty zippy so it took some getting used to the controller. Between the vehicle’s sensitive reaction to commands and having a hard time seeing the video in the sun, I definitely ran into the bottom more than once! But after a few minutes of playing around, seeing some fish (possibly Menhaden), slipper shells, and a whole lot of algae, I got a pretty good sense for how to operate the vehicle.

Once I got the hang of piloting the Trident, we decided to test the 100 m tether. Roxa asked if she could help, so after I rinsed and dried the contacts, she removed the short tether and attached the long one. We again waited for the system to fire up, tested the motors, and got it back in the water. This time, I let Roxa pilot, and she put the motors through their paces -- up, down, left, right, forward, back -- and sometimes it seemed like everything was happening simultaneously.

Fortunately, we didn’t burn out any motors, so I gave the system a rinse, packed it up, and we had lunch on the beach before heading home for the day. So easy a toddler could do it, right?!

I can't wait to give the Trident ROV a spin in the warm waters of Trinidad and Tobago in a few days! I guess I better get packing as Alexis Hope and I (MIT Media Lab), as well as Alan Turchik (National Geographic) will be flying out in two days!

This post was written by Katy Croff Bell, a director of Open Ocean, MIT Media Lab and a National Geographic Explorer.

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Ahoy hoy! This is my first contribution to Open Explorer and I am pretty psyched that it is to report on learning how to use the Nat Geo DropCam for our upcoming trip to Trinidad & Tobago.

Yesterday, Diva and I flew to National Geographic Headquarters in Washington, DC, to be trained by Alan Turchik on how to deploy the Exploration Technology Lab’s deep sea Drop Cameras. These systems can be dropped to 6,000 m deep in the ocean, are baited to attract animals, and can be programmed to record high definition video, depth, and temperature for up to 6 hours of record time.

We spent the first morning in the lab learning about all the systems, from programming to launch, recovery to data download. By lunchtime, Diva and I were able to step through the pre-deployment checklist without assistance.

In the afternoon, we drove out to Rock Creek Park to learn how to use the radio tracker to find the DropCam. Alan placed the DropCam across a field, and Diva and I took turns using the radio antenna to hear its signal and locate it with our eyes closed by listening to its signal. I was even able to get out of a wooded area and to the field to find it!

The next day, we rented a boat on the Chesapeake Bay so that we could go through the entire process of deployment and recovery in the water. We programmed the DropCam to remain on the bottom for 30 minutes. Deployment went off without a hitch - we dropped it in the water easily and down to the bottom it sank. Approximately 25 minutes later, Captain Keith took us off site so that Diva and I could again practice using the radio antenna to find the DropCam once it came to the surface.

In seawater, the burn wire should release in about 5 minutes, and pop right up to the surface. But it didn’t. We started to get concerned that the water was too fresh for the burn wire to work (it relies on accelerated rusting of a wire by running electrical current through it). It had just rained quite a lot (large input of fresh water), and the tide was going out (more water from the river coming into the Bay than water coming in from the ocean. And, I had to get back to DC to catch a flight home that afternoon. I kept listening, and listening, and listening for a ping…......

Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait too long. After about 10-15 minutes, Alan and Captain Keith saw it pop right up to the surface. It turns out that we hadn't tweaked the settings of the receiver as well as we could have. Oops! But this is why we do training, right?! Diva and I practiced tracking it with our eyes closed once again, and motored over to grab it with a boat hook.

We made it back to the dock, packed up our gear, and enjoyed some chocolate chip scones en route to the airport! We both feel a lot better about using the DropCam but are still looking forward to going through the motions many more times in Trinidad and Tobago in a few days!

This post was written by Katy Croff Bell, a director of Open Ocean, MIT Media Lab and a National Geographic Explorer.

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Expedition Background

Our pilot project is designed to provide ocean access and increased technological capacity in Trinidad and Tobago, a small island developing state. This approach will have three aims:
1) Access to emerging ocean technology that can be used from any platform

2) Training for an in-country scientist, student, and communicator to enable use and dissemination of findings from that technology

3) Provision of a MSc scholarship for a student

This three-pronged approach will build long-term in-country capacity for ocean exploration, detailed below:

Aim 1:

Technology: We will utilize innovative technology developed by OpenROV, National Geographic, and others. The tech can be used in a multitude of ways, including to determine species presence, check bathymetry accuracy, revisit sites over time, explore new locales, or image sites of interest (e.g. shipwrecks). Data collected may necessitate knowledge of species, habitats, image analysis and statistics.

Aim 2:

(a) In-country technology training: An engineer and another team member will travel to Trinidad to deliver the National Geographic Drop Cameras, and other technology to train a group of scientists, engineers, students, and communicators in their use. The OpenROV Trident will be delivered before so that exploration and training can start as soon as possible. Technology will then be left in-country with plans to deploy them at least ten times before (b).

(b) In-USA analysis and media-products training: Following (a), we propose that three representatives from Trinidad and Tobago (a scientist, a student, and a communicator to be identified during (a)) travel to the USA for further training in data analysis and creating outreach materials. We envision that the scientist and student will collaborate to analyse the captured imagery, whereas the communicator will generate media products to disseminate information in-country, in whatever format they deem culturally-appropriate. Outreach and artistic materials will be created at the MIT Media Lab. This trip will coincide with the National Ocean Exploration Forum, so it is expected that partners will share their experiences and results there.

Aim 3:

Masters-level training: The OpenROV Trident will remain in Trinidad and Tobago, so that local scientists and students can continue to explore their own backyards, however, the interpretation and use of data will require higher capacity. For example, how will a country know if a new species has been discovered without taxonomic or ecological expertise? To enable lasting scientific capacity, we propose to have a student matriculate in a masters program at Boston University, which will enable students to engage more fully in the global community of benthic marine experts. MSc-level training is part of our program to ensure that Trinidad and Tobago has the necessary tools to put their exploratory findings into the relevant scientific context. The appropriate student will be identified during Aim 2 via a scholarship RFP in-country. Applicants will be evaluated by the team and asked to apply to the appropriate graduate program; if accepted, the scholarship will be applied towards their degree.

We plan to visit Trinidad in early August 2018 to start the deep-sea journey with the Drop Cameras, but exploration and outreach using the OpenROV Trident will begin in July 2018.

Project collaborators: Randi Rotjan, Diva Amon, Brennan Phillips, Alan Turchik, Katy Croff Bell, Rafael Anta, Gerard Alleng, Kristina Gjerde, Gil Montague, Kate Furby, Alexis Hope

Trinidad and Tobago collaborators: University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, SpeSeas, National Institute for Higher Education, Science and Technology (NIHERST) and the COAST Foundation/Offshore Innovators.

This project will have a twin pilot in Kiribati, which you can read here: Kiribati Ocean Exploration

Stay tuned for updates coming soon!

This post was written by Diva Amon of SpeSeas, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Natural History Museum, London, UK.

Diva, this is so cool! Really excited to see how this and the Kiribati expedition develop.