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Nuclear research submarine NR-1 is moored at Naval Submarine base New London, Conn. Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class John Fields

The U.S. Navy’s nuclear research submarine NR-1 participated in a scientific expedition March 2–10 to the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (FGBNMS) in the Gulf of Mexico to explore and monitor plant and marine life during “Secrets of the Gulf 2007.”

The Flower Garden Banks, ranging in depth between 200 to 400 feet, was named for the vivid color of plants, sponges and marine life discovered by fishermen in the late 1800s. The sanctuary was targeted for exploration because of its unique geology and biology, and its geological history also makes it a viable location to search for evidence of early inhabitants.

NR-1’s mission was to carry sanctuary researchers who would explore deep-water low-relief ridges that connect various banks along the continental shelf in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico, including two of the three banks that comprise the sanctuary. Eleven NR-1 crew members and two scientists put to sea March 2 intent on covering as much ground as possible in the few days they would have to explore and gather samples.

NR-1 was towed from Groton, Conn., by the submarine support vessel (SSV) MV Carolyn Chouest and arrived in Galveston, Texas, Feb. 27 to take part in the landmark expedition in the FGBNMS.

NR-1 is going to be the legs of the mission,” said Cmdr. Enrique N. Panlilio, officer in charge of NR-1. “If a wide area of the ocean bottom needs to be searched out, then NR-1 can search using side-scan sonar and obstacle avoidance sonar. We’ll also be down there within visual sight of the bottom looking at bottom features either through our view ports or through our cameras.”

For this mission, NR-1 was tasked with surveying several transections at the West Flower Garden Bank (WFGB) in depths around 300 feet. A team of geologists, biologists, and marine archaeologists explored coral reefs, brine seeps, mud volcanoes, and ancient shore lines with the help of NR-1, Argus (a remotely operated vehicle), and scuba divers. Scientists were searching for signs of early life with hopes of finding evidence of early human existence along a coastline that may have extended 115 miles farther into the Gulf 19,000 years ago.

“We have better maps of Mars than we do of submerged America,” said Dr. Robert D. Ballard, professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island and the president of the Institute for Exploration (IFE) at Mystic Aquarium in Conn., who directed the expedition from a telecommunications center there. “Sending men to the bottom of the ocean can provide details about our past when compared to present day, and may give clues to future events.”

Homeported at Naval Submarine Base, New London, Conn., NR-1 was launched in 1969 and is the Navy’s only nuclear-powered research submarine. It is capable of performing underwater search and recovery, oceanographic research, and the installation and repair of equipment down to depths of one-half mile.

A one-of-a-kind design, advanced technology and sonar systems provide NR-1 with the ability to navigate precisely to detect and ascertain the position of objects in the water and on the seabed in a way other research vessels cannot.

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(left) A portion of a sanctuary map of the Flower Garden Banks. National Marine Sanctuary graphic
(right) Inside NR-1. Photo courtesy of Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary

Specific features include three four-inch view ports, which allow the crew to establish direct visual contact with the ocean floor. At the very bottom, the box keel houses NR-1’s manipulator arm used for recovering objects from the seabed. The sub also boasts two sample baskets each with a 1,000-pound lifting capacity and two retractable rubber-tired bottoming wheels allowing NR-1 to cruise on the ocean floor.

Side-scan sonar surveys were conducted allowing the researchers to create detailed mapping of the ocean floor in an effort to identify ancient shorelines which may have existed thousands of years ago when the sea level was much lower due to the ice age.

“Scientists that use a manned deep submergence vehicle like NR-1 feel they can understand so much more—by being there in person—about the complex environments with first-hand experience versus looking through a robotic camera,” said Dr. Dwight F. Coleman, director of research at IFE and the expedition’s chief scientist.

Thanks to Immersion Presents, a private organization working with the expedition, live broadcasts of the mission aired each day in classrooms and other education forums around the country giving students an opportunity to ask questions of the scientists on board the vessel via live feeds on the Internet.
“We received very positive feedback from students, teachers and the public on the educational broadcasts that were produced live,” said Coleman.

Although the scientists did not find any direct evidence of ice age human activity around the banks they explored, Coleman noted the expedition yielded some evidence of geographic formations that would have been attractive to early humans.

The results from the biologists and geologists exploring the sanctuary’s ecosystem will be used to protect these resources for current and future generations.

“All the scientists were very pleased by the performance of NR-1, the Navy team, and crew of Carolyn Chouest in accomplishing what was a very ambitious project,” said Coleman. “We hope to use the submarine NR-1 in future missions to explore (more) submerged sites.”

Data collected from the expedition will be analyzed over the next few months at the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island.

Petty Officer 1st Class John Fields is a Mass Communication Specialist with the Fleet Public Affairs Center Atlantic.

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NR-1 arrives in Galveston, Texas in preparation for Operation Flower Garden Banks Expedition 2007.
Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class John Fields