Waller to lead NOAA exploration of underwater mountains

Rhian Waller
Rhian Waller

This summer, Rhian Waller will return to an area of the Atlantic Ocean that she last explored 16 years ago. And she’s inviting everyone interested in the deep sea and deep sea animals to watch the underwater discoveries with her in real time.

In 2005, Waller was a postdoctoral fellow at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution taking part in a NOAA Ocean Exploration expedition called Deep Atlantic Stepping Stones: Exploring the Western North Atlantic Seamounts. 

On that research trip, she and colleagues used a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to examine coral communities on two undersea volcanic mountains a half-mile below the surface. Corals, which had been significantly damaged decades earlier by deep-sea fishing trawlers, still had not recovered.

Now, Waller’s a University of Maine associate professor based at the Darling Marine Center. And the cold-water coral expert is a lead scientist for NOAA Ocean Exploration’s 2021 expedition called North Atlantic Stepping Stones: New England and Corner Rise Seamounts. 

Seamounts are underwater mountains formed by volcanic activity a long time ago. Lava breaks through thin spots in the Earth’s crust called hotspots to form undersea mountains that support an array of marine life. Nutrient-rich deep water flows up, around and over the seamounts and to the ocean’s surface, providing food for plankton, fish, turtles and seabirds, says Waller.

Over tens of millions of years, if seamounts grow high enough to break the surface of the ocean, they become islands. For example, the Hawaiian Islands are a set of seamounts. 

“Everything is connected,” says Waller. “Deep water is connected to shallow water. To make sure the ocean is healthy overall, we have to care about all of it. And to care for it, we have to know what’s there.”

The New England and Corner Rise seamounts are more than 1,200 miles off the coast of Newport, Rhode Island, which is where the expedition begins and ends. Together, the New England and Corner Rise seamount chains have about 85 major peaks.

During the June 30-July 29 voyage, Waller and a team will live and work aboard the 224-foot NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer. They’ll use an ROV called the Deep Discoverer to collect deep-ocean data and specimens, with goals of improving understanding of seamounts, increasing awareness about the value of the ocean, and informing management of marine resources.

The ship’s high-bandwidth satellite connection will provide for real-time ship-to-shore communication. Waller, thousands of scientists worldwide, and the public will see high-resolution video of deep sea animals and never-visited-before seafloor — sometimes as far as 2.5 miles below the ocean surface. 

As a lead scientist, Waller will meet at 6 a.m. daily with colleagues to review conditions — including weather and currents — and assess whether a deepwater ROV dive is feasible. She’ll also talk with scientists on shore to discuss the day’s dive plan and learn what species they’d like to look for. Waller anticipates that around 25 dives will be conducted during the 30-day expedition.

During each approximately 8-hour dive, Waller and scientists will communicate online and narrate the live video feed that satellites are beaming back to shore. She and colleagues also will answer questions sent in by the public. 

After each day’s dive, Waller will write a dive summary that includes what animals were observed and what specimens were collected. She’ll then help preserve and photograph specimens, and talk with scientists on shore about plans for the next day’s dive on a different seamount along the chain. 

Waller calls this expedition a career highlight, which is saying a lot considering she’s participated in scuba and submersible dives all over the world. In 2016, the 100th anniversary of the National Park System, Waller led the first-ever extensive expedition of underwater fjords in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Alaska.

She’s also a fellow in the international Explorers Club that encourages scientific discovery during exploration of land, sea and space. And in 2013, the celebrated ice water diver was featured in National Geographic as a 21st-century risk-taker in the “New Age of Exploration” exhibition. 

This expedition will expand on findings during NOAA Ocean Exploration’s 2013 and 2014 expeditions to the region. Those trips, says Waller, yielded data that informed the 2016 creation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument off Cape Cod, which includes four seamounts that are part of the New England seamount chain.  

Due to the pandemic, Waller will quarantine for a week in Rhode Island prior to the expedition, and there will be limited crew onboard.

Waller says she’s excited to see areas of the seafloor never before seen by humans, and she’s interested to learn if the decimated coral communities that she viewed 16 years ago on two of the Corner Rise seamounts will show any signs of recovery.

Contact: Beth Staples, beth.staples@maine.edu