Text by Rae Sojot | Images by John Hook & Courtesy Schmidt Ocean Institute
Docked at Pier 35 in Honolulu Harbor, Falkor bustles with activity akin to that of a starlet being fussed over by an eager entourage. The ship’s hulls, recently painted a rich green, gleam in the morning light. Crewmembers scurry up the gangplank delivering provisions. On the bridge, officers fine-tune navigation systems while a contingent of international engineers move about the deck. It’s almost show time. Soon, Falkor will be en route to the Line Islands to study ancient coral beds, under the lead of University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa scientist Kenneth Rubin.
Science has long been a proud tradition in the United States, but in recent years, shrinking federal funding has stymied research opportunities. As public monies have faltered, private donors are emerging as science’s new patron. Flush with funds, they channel money toward personal interests ranging from healthcare to space travel. For executive chairman of Alphabet (Google’s parent company) Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy, who are both ocean enthusiasts, the choice was easy: oceanographic research.
Founded in 2009 and based in Palo Alto, California, Schmidt Ocean Institute works to advance ocean research through the discovery and dissemination of knowledge. With ocean pollution and increased temperatures looming, the Schmidts saw the ocean as a barometer for the planet. “Our hope is to accelerate the pace of research,” said Wendy Schmidt at the institute’s symposium in 2013, echoing the call-to-action of oceanographer Sylvia Earle: What happens to the ocean in the next 10 years will determine the future for the next 10,000 years.
As a nonprofit, Schmidt Ocean Institute doesn’t award grants. Instead, it provides scientists ship time—a scarce commodity in today’s science industry—and access to cutting-edge equipment and technological support. Those desiring time aboard Falkor must go through a stringent vetting and review process. The institute considers proposals normally passed over by traditional funding agencies, often favoring those with innovative angles, or with interests in unexplored oceanic areas, such as the waters of Vietnam and Indonesia.
For scientists like Rubin, Falkor is the premier platform for pursuing their passions. The institute spent three years on a multi-million dollar transformation of the 82-meter state-of-the-art science vessel from its original form, as a German fishery protection vessel. Christened “Falkor” after the dragon in Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, the ship is a marine scientist’s dream. It boasts both a wet and a dry laboratory; high-performance computing systems; a remotely operated underwater vehicle; an autonomous underwater vehicle; light, wind, and weather sensors; hydrophones; and multi-beam mapping capabilities. At the Line Islands, Rubin will rely on Falkor to investigate how coral reefs formed during the last Ice Age, and how rising sea levels 20,000 years ago affected coral ecology—the results of which will help inform scientists about the effects of rising sea levels today. For a second expedition, Rubin will travel to Tonga to study its unusually large number of young and recently active submarine volcanoes. He hopes to capture one of the volcanoes erupting, and as a Falkor scientist, he’ll have the means to do it.
Much of the action aboard Falkor happens in its science control room, where 32 computer monitors hover over a console of buttons and lights rivaling the Star Trek Enterprise. Everything from sea-floor mapping to whale studies takes place here. The resulting excitement, like over the discovery of a new sea mount, or the tension, as during the delicate process of securing a tiny coral sample at the depths of 4,500 meters, is palpable. Analysis of the resulting data can be performed on the ship in real time, allowing for immediate adjustments. “The ship is adaptive to the science that comes on board,” says Carlie Wiener, the institute’s communication manager. “It’s high risk, high reward.”
In charting its course to promote such science, and hoping to reach a wider audience, the institute developed its Artist at Sea program. For Hawai‘i-based illustrator Kirsten Carlson, who has a background in marine biology and grew up watching “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” and drawing fantastical creatures, the program was a dream opportunity. During her month aboard the Falkor, Carlson created a watercolor series utilizing a cyanometer to measure the blueness of sea and sky, and “geeked out” on plankton, creating a poster of the microscopic organisms that is now displayed on the ship. Just like the researchers, Carlson and other Artist at Sea hopefuls must submit applications detailing their proposed projects. The resulting creations reflect rich and diverse mediums, including a musical composition based on Falkor’s speed through water and over ground, and photographs created from seawater-soaked film that, when developed in the ship’s wet lab-turned-darkroom, emerged with unexpected bursts of color.
The institute’s emphasis on collaboration means that art created and information gathered during research cruises is accessible worldwide, by everyone from scientists to elementary school students. Dives are streamed live, and data from Falkor’s sensor systems are placed in public repositories. “We want to get the science out there,” Wiener says. In 2014, a mapping cruise by Falkor in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument helped to plot areas for subsequent Monument-led research dives, which led to the discovery of several new fish species.
Back in the science control room, lead marine technician Leighton Rolley brings up a multi-beam mapping of the sea floor from a recent dive. The monitors glow with images of an underwater mountain chain. Falkor is equipped with systems that can look for currents and wildlife 9,000 meters below the ocean’s surface, Rolley explains. Mapping the sea floor is a key component of the cruises, providing insight into hydrothermal vents and deep coral reefs, uncovering shipwrecks, and revealing new species. In 2012, Rolley discovered the wreck of the S.S. Terra Nova, a famous polar exploration vessel that sunk off Greenland in 1943. “We still have only mapped 3 percent of the sea floor,” Rolley marvels. “People forget that there is a whole world under the ocean.”