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Ocean Exploration

Squat lobster on deep coral.

A squat lobster resides on a deep-sea octocoral in Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Image courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, Gulf of Mexico 2014 Expedition.

The deep ocean holds many mysteries that researchers have only just begun to recognize. New technologies and tools have allowed scientists to explore areas of the deep ocean never before accessed, and they have found hundreds of new species and even new ecosystems. Yet, much of the world’s oceans remain unexplored.

Authorizing mandate

In June 2000, the President directed the Secretary of Commerce to convene an Ocean Exploration Panel, composed of ocean explorers, researchers, and marine educators. The panel developed a national strategy for exploring the oceans. The report, Discovering Earth’s Final Frontier: A U.S. Strategy for Ocean Exploration, details recommendations for establishing and promoting an interagency, multidisciplinary Ocean Exploration Program that is global in scope but concentrated in U.S. waters. The panel recommended that NOAA take charge of the endeavor.

In response, NOAA created the Office of Ocean Exploration (OOE) to lead the effort. OOE is a major program office within NOAA's Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research. OOE coordinates the agency’s exploration efforts and facilitates research expeditions. Most cruises to date have been multidisciplinary endeavors conducted in conjunction with such organizations as Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, and many academic institutions. OOE partners with several NOAA offices and programs, including the National Marine Sanctuary Program.

NOAA's National Ocean Service (NOS)helps to plan explorations that take place within the nation's 13 national marine sanctuaries and one ecological research reserve. In addition, NOS directs and maintains official Web site for these explorations, NOAA Explorer. This offering serves as an archive of the exploration program, chronicling of the missions with detailed daily logs, informative essays, and rich multimedia offerings. It offers over 130 hands-on, standards-based lesson and a curriculum based on the explorations.

Ocean exploration in the National Ocean Service

Since the inception of the NOAA Ocean Exploration Program in 2001, the nation’s marine sanctuaries have been the site of many important expeditions. Exploration teams have visited sanctuaries in the Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes to study and map historic shipwrecks, characterize benthic habitats, increase our understanding of deep water corals and seamounts, and appreciate the interconnectedness of, and threats to, the marine environment.

Recent accomplishments include the recovery of the historic turret and engine of the Civil War ironclad, the USSMonitor from the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary off Cape Hatteras, NC, discovery of many 19th century shipwrecks in the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Lake Huron, Mich., and a detailed survey of the SteamshipPortland, an ill-fated passenger ship lost in 1898 in what is now the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the Massachusetts coast.

Multidisciplinary teams have traveled through the Gulf of Mexico and up the Atlantic coast to explore protected and unprotected deep water coral reefs and hard-bottom communities including Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Texas, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary at the southern tip of Florida, and Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary off of Georgia.

On the west coast, explorers have documented the cultural links of the Northwest Coast Native Americans and First Nations to the marine environment in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary off of Washington. Teams also conducted research, exploration, and monitoring along the California coastline in Cordell BankGulf of the Farallones, Monterey Bay, and Channel Islands national marine sanctuaries.

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Did you know?

The average depth of the ocean is about 14,000 feet. The deepest part of the ocean is called the Challenger Deep and is located beneath the western Pacific Ocean in the southern end of the Mariana Trench, which runs several hundred kilometers southwest of the U.S. territorial island of Guam.

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