OCEAN VISIONS – The story of the Regional Cabled Array

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By Sarah Smith

University of Washington Tacoma

Sarah is a senior at UW Tacoma specializing in communications. Credit: S. Smith, UW Tacoma.

At a party a few years back, I met my first oceanographer. I sheepishly admitted that I didn’t know what an oceanographer was, not really. I’d seen a few nature documentaries, but up to that point my life, I hadn’t crossed paths with any ocean scientists. Graciously, he explained his work relating to ocean acidification. We agreed on how devastating it is to watch the planet change so drastically due to climate change. While I was sad about the inevitable end of the world, he was pragmatic. What I found most interesting about this conversation was the passion he had for his work. Having not known any scientists before this point, I didn’t understand what a core part of their being this was. I would come to find that passion and an insatiable curiosity about the world around them is a thread that runs through every ocean scientist.

My first year back to finally complete my degree at UW Tacoma led me to take an oceanography class with Cheryl Greengrove. Cheryl was another passionate oceanographer whose enthusiasm for science was infectious. I found myself asking a million questions in her class and making connections about the world around me that felt absolutely mind-blowing. By that time I had decided to pursue a degree in Communication and had started making science-communication documentaries about things like climate change in the Puget Sound and the impacts of the Tahoma Audubon Society’s environmental conservation efforts. Cheryl presented me with the opportunity to make a movie about oceanography and UW’s involvement in building the Regional Cabled Array as part of the ocean-wide Ocean Observatories Initiative. I said yes and set out on a year-long undergrad research documentary project.

In fall of 2019, I sat down with Deborah Kelley, a Marine Geologist and Professor at the University of Washington School of Oceanography. She’s also the Director for the Regional Cabled Array, the underwater cabled component of the National Science Foundation’s Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI). Deb share with me about underwater volcanoes and hydrothermal fields that she helped discover, where 50,000 year old vents rise from the sea floor, and methane seeps into areas of the ocean atmosphere. I couldn’t get over how surreal that all sounded. Then she showed me some of the video footage that had been captured at Axial Seamount, the largest and most active underwater volcano off the Washington-Oregon coast. Here, instruments connected to submarine fiber optic cable stream data at the speed of light, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week from nearly a mile beneath the oceans surface. Thanks to power provided by the Regional Cabled Array, these communications and data were now available for all the world to see. The extreme environment on the ocean floor was teeming with life, and as scientists, they’d just barely begun to scratch the surface. The next question that came to mind was how did all this come to be?

I found myself on a ferry to San Juan Island the following February to interview John Delaney, Professor Emeritus, and the visionary behind the Regional Cabled Array. He led the University of Washington team of scientists and engineers who designed, built, and installed this first U.S. Regional Cabled Ocean Observatory. John and I talked in the living room of a house in Friday Harbor overlooking the Salish Sea. He shared with me how the idea to bring the Internet into the oceans came to him in a conversation over a beer with another scientist at a conference. A frustration Delaney faced in his career, as an ocean scientist, was the lack of ability to be in any place for a long period of time, at the right time, to track and measure the ever-changing ocean continuously. Cruises could be affected by factors like weather, instrument battery life and environmental factors that made for less-than-perfect conditions for research to be conducted. Around the same time, fiber optic communication cables were being installed across the ocean floor to connect the globe via the internet. Delaney saw an opportunity to harness that technology for ocean science research, and for the next 25 years, he would dedicate his life to making this idea into reality.

I was excited to tell this story. I wanted to not only share this incredible technology that’s now facilitating a new wave of scientific discoveries in the ocean, but to also communicate the humanity behind the science in my documentary – that inspiring, infectious passion that oceanographers and scientists like John Delaney and Deb Kelley possess, enabling them to bring incredible underwater discoveries and ideas like the Regional Cabled Array to life.

By the time I had completed my documentary project, Ocean Visions, 6 months of COVID-19 life had already passed. I wasn’t able to join a research cruise out to the site of the Regional Cabled Array like I had hoped. I didn’t get to complete many of the on-camera interviews I had planned to include in the video due to social distancing protocols. I felt discouraged, but I kept thinking about what John and Deb had said about their experiences as scientists, and their determination and creativity in finding solutions to continue their work. It inspired me to keep going.

In the end, though the video turned out different from what I had originally envisioned, I believe it’s successfully infused with the passion and spirit shared by ocean scientists that I set out to showcase. Instead of recording footage myself, I poured over hundreds of hours of existing underwater footage from the Regional Cabled Observatory. I pulled together interesting and illustrative clips from research cruises over the past decade and became immersed in that underwater footage in a way that I might not have otherwise had the ability to do. The UW marketing team shared footage from the R/V. Thomas G. Thompson.  I also reached out to my oceanographer friend, who I first had a conversation with about ocean science, and he shared some beautiful footage from his experiences on the water for me to use. In a way, the detour that COVID-19 caused brought this journey into the world of oceanography full-circle.

As I approach the last weeks of my time as a UW undergrad, I’m so grateful for the experience working with oceanographers and producing this documentary provided. All along the way, I’ve been continuously inspired by that insatiable curiosity shared by these scientists. They’ve shown me how to pursue big ideas with vigor, to stay the course, and to never stop challenging myself to ask questions and pursue answers about the world around me with passion.