Starting this week, E/V Nautilus, the same expedition ship we saw find the ever-lovable “googly-eyed Stubby Squid,” will begin conducting a cruise with the purpose of studying the cultural heritage and natural wildlife in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary (GFNMS) and adjacent sanctuary waters. The GFNMS was recently expanded to include 3,295 square miles, and contains over 400 shipwrecks. Largely unexplored in its deepest portions, the expedition hopes to better understand the sanctuary.

WWII Aircraft Carrier USS Independence
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

USS Independence to serve as interesting scientific subject

In addition to natural wildlife studies, the E/V Nautilus will conduct the very first visual survey of the USS Independence, a World War II era naval vessel and former aircraft carrier, once used during atomic tests at Bikini Atoll. Scuttled off of the San Francisco shore in 1951, it was recently rediscovered as the deepest shipwreck in local waters. Mapped acoustically using sinar technology by NOAA last year using autonomous underwater vehicles, the shipwreck will also be imaged for photomosaic and microbathymetry data.

The former carrier is “amazingly intact,” according to NOAA scientists. Its hull and flight deck are largely visible, as well as what appears to be the wreckage of a plane within the carrier’s hangar bay. The USS Independence is resting in 2,600 feet of water just off of California’s Farallon Islands.

While in use by the US Navy, the USS Independence sailed the central and western Pacific Ocean from November 1943 until August 1945. Later, it was repurposed and used as one of more than 90 naval vessels as a target fleet for the atomic tests at Bikini Atoll in 1946. It survived the atomic shockwaves, heat, and radiation, and was later returned to the United States.

The vessel was then moored at San Francisco’s Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard, where it became the focus of Naval studies regarding radiation decontamination. After several years, the vessel’s age and the possibility of its sinking called for its towing to sea and its scuttling on January 26, 1951.

Scientists to also research deep sea habitats

In addition to researching the USS Independence’s wreckage, an additional goal of the E/V Nautilus will be to study and characterize the habitats of deep sea coral and sponges of the GFNMS. As these zone function as sentinel sites for oceanic acidification monitoring as well as identification of impacts within upwelling regions, these areas are being targeted for priority research in the future.

Additionally, the E/V Nautilus will attempt to collect biological samples of sponges and deep-sea corals, as well as associated species, in order to identify new species as well as document growth rates and studies.

E/V Nautilus’s expedition hopes to expand the baseline understanding of deep-sea coral, fish, as well as rocky substrate wildlife communities within the GFNMS. In addition to mapping and documenting their discoveries, scientists involved in the expedition hope to document how fish and marine invertebrates have colonized and now utilize the USS Independence as a habitat, rather than the natural seabed.

The E/V Nautilus is a research ship equipped with state-of-the-art research and mapping technology, allowing it to be the ideal scientific vessel to support this project. Equipped with a dynamic positioning system, an EM302 multibeam sonar mapping system, as well as handling systems for the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) operations, the vessel is properly suited for the expedition. The Hercules/Argus ROV system will be primarily used to dive, collect HD video footage, and collect geological, water, and biological samples. The visual survey of the USS Independence will be streamed live with interaction with the science team via the Nautilus’s website.