By Scott A. Rowan
Last month’s discovery by government researchers of what is believed to be the first recording of a newly-discovered deep-sea octopus dubbed Casper begged the logical question: what was the government doing in such a remote and inhospitable location to begin with?
The answer, it turns out, includes an uncommon form of recycling on a massive scale.
The scientists and researchers who worked to find Casper were not, in fact, looking to discover new species. That was a fortunate byproduct of their mission on board the Okeanos Explorer, a former surveillance ship that served in the United States Navy from 1988 until being decommissioned in 2004.
Built in Gulfport, Mississippi, and launched on October 28, 1988, the vessel was placed in service with the Navy’s Marine Sealift Command group and was named the USNS Capable. During its naval service, the USNS Capable was a specialized vessel designed for anti-submarine surveillance and tracking (translation: hunted Soviet subs). Due to the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Navy’s need to hunt enemy subs was replaced with the need to track drug traffickers. In the 1990s, the USNS Capable along with its sister ships the USNS Stalwart and USNS Indomitable were converted to monitor and track suspected drug activity on the ocean.
On September 14, 2004, the USNS Capable was taken out of service. Renamed the Okeanos Explorer, the ship was commissioned on August 13, 2008, in Seattle, Washington.
With massive dimensions (224 feet long by 43 feet wide, with a 15-foot draft that disperses 2,300 tons), the Okeanos Explorer is the only U.S. ship whose sole role is to map ocean floors. Dubbed “America’s Ship for Ocean Exploration,” the Okeanos Explorer can berth 46 (staff and researchers) while it remains at sea for extended periods of time mapping specific regions. This year, the areas of focus for the researchers aboard the Okeanos are the Hawaiian Archipelago, the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands (CNMI) and the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument (MTMNM), and Wake Atoll section of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (PRIMNM). Previous missions have taken the Okeanos around the specific regions around the globe. (NOAA offers a breakdown of all previous missions online.)
Built to military specifications, the Okeanos is a unique research vessel with a variety of abilities thanks to the heavy duty equipment it holds specifically built for reconnaissance. Some of the features include:
• two remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) that can reach a depth of approximately 20,000 feet (6,000 meters) via a tether that keeps them attached to the ship
• Telepresence technology specifically designed to allow live images of the ocean floor to be broadcast to researchers either securely on board the vessel or to any receiver ashore (briefing rooms, classrooms, news conferences, etc.)
• Dynamic Positioning allows the vessel to remain in one spot indefinitely while researchers conduct have the ROV on a tether
Being able to recycle such a specialized vessel is not the common fate for most navy ships. When a naval ship is decommissioned it has three basic futures that await it: sunk, scrapped or saved. Most ships are sold for scrap because the sensitive nature of floor diagrams, part designs, and overall configurations can be used by foreign intelligence to improve their own designs. Many ships await a final decision and are docked in secure locations at American harbors. Being saved and converted into a museum or recommissioned for official use is the most visible, but uncommon fate for some vessels.
The USNS Capable-turned-Okeanos Explorer is one of the few vessels fortunate to be part of the final category.