Opening our ocean


NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2017 Laulima O Ka Moana

NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research,  2017 Laulima O Ka Moana

A new Media Lab initiative seeks to connect humanity with ocean exploration

The world’s ocean has been one of humanity’s richest resources throughout our history, never more so than today. Indeed, our reliance on the ocean can be quantified in the starkest terms: the ocean is critical to life on earth, providing three quarters of the oxygen we breathe; supplying 20% of the average intake of animal protein to 3.1 billion people; and supporting a growing $1.5 trillion global ocean economy. Less measurable, but no less important, is the inextricable role of the ocean in shaping humanity through research, exploration, and enterprise. From merchants to poets, scientists to athletes, the ocean offers a seemingly endless supply of those things most vital to the human endeavor: challenge, mystery, inspiration, and discovery.

Despite our fundamental and eternal relationship with our ocean, we know remarkably little about it. Only 15% of the seafloor has been mapped with modern methods, and less than 5% has ever been seen by human eyes. Despite the ocean’s relevance, we only have an elementary knowledge of its role in making our planet habitable for humankind, or how to use its resources most wisely and effectively for a thriving future.


Aleksandr Petrov

Beyond these barriers, the ocean remains closed to us on a more essential, visceral level: our understanding of the ocean is largely limited to experts. Most people have neither knowledge nor the access to knowledge about the centrality of the ocean to human life and activity; how much of it is undiscovered; and, most importantly, how their own knowledge, expertise, and passions might come to bear on exploring and harnessing the mysteries of the deep.  

The Media Lab’s Open Ocean initiative aims to unlock humanity’s potential to explore the oceans fully. The mission is to bring together science, technology, art, and society, to design and deploy new ways to explore the ocean and connect people to it, empowering a global community of explorers to understand and care about our planet. Katy Croff Bell, the initiative’s founder and lead, puts it more simply: “We want to understand the ocean and make it available to people.”


NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2017 Laulima O Ka Moana

First waves

Bell, an MIT alum, geological oceanographer, and National Geographic Explorer, first came to the Media Lab in 2014 as a Director’s Fellow. At the time she was the chief scientist of the Ocean Exploration Trust’s Nautilus Exploration Program, working with a large, global team of scientists, engineers, and educators to conduct multidisciplinary expeditions aboard E/V Nautilus, which were streamed live to the world.

“When I became a Director’s Fellow and came to the Lab, I walked around thinking ‘Oh wow, there are so many amazing things that could be used for oceanography and exploration and research,’ and while none of it was designed for that, I could see so many potential opportunities and possibilities,” Bell says.

Bell led a one-day workshop with the Lab community to talk about the ocean and generate ideas; she says they filled a wall-sized whiteboard with all the things people wanted to do. Some of those ideas turned into research projects, and in 2016 she led five Media Lab researchers on a Nautilus expedition. That experience laid the groundwork for what would become the Open Ocean initiative.

“I came up with the idea to put together a collaboration between the MIT Media Lab and National Geographic to help get new and emerging technologies out into the field with explorers to accelerate and share their discoveries,” she explains.

Setting sail

Launched in July 2017, the first months of the initiative have been dedicated to gathering an initial cohort of participants from diverse fields and backgrounds, conducting initial research explorations, and “testing the waters” on what types of activities are best-suited for Media Lab development and deployment. The initiative is open to everyone at the Lab, so one of the things Bell has been most excited to see is the range of unique and innovative ideas—from designing sensors for whales to swallow so we can monitor their guts, to looking for deep-sea bioluminescent proteins that might be used to detect neurons in our brains.

Bell also has some very specific projects in mind. One of these is creating a new, more effective, more interactive way of accessing oceanic video and data. “A lot of video and data gets collected and then put in a closet and nobody ever looks at again. There’s so much we can learn from legacy data,” she says.

In true Media Lab fashion, Open Ocean’s first efforts have been collaborative and antidisciplinary. In November, a field trip to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution brought twelve Labbers from different research groups together to learn about hydroacoustics, deep sea biology, underwater vehicles, hydrothermal vents, and genomics, among other things. Another trip in December brought researchers to the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography to get an inside look at oceanographic research and exploration efforts. In January, Open Ocean participated in an MIT Independent Activities Period (IAP) course in collaboration with the Design Lab and the New England Aquarium—NEAQ 2069: Envisioning the Future Aquarium Experience


Public Domain

Here be Dragons

Bell and the Open Ocean researchers have many projects, collaborations, and plans to execute on the horizon. Coming up next, however, is Here be Dragons: a two-day symposium on February 26-27, 2018, dedicated to identifying the uncharted territories of ocean exploration. On day one, innovators, artists, scientists, explorers, and storytellers will offer talks and workshops that take a cross-disciplinary deep dive into the opportunities and challenges in research, conservation, and innovation. The second day is dedicated to collaborative project development: Students and researchers will work with National Geographic Explorers to develop projects that deploy new and emerging technologies in a chosen field, with a focus on addressing gaps in our understanding and sharing of the ocean. Teams will pitch their projects at the New England Aquarium at the end of the day, and National Geographic will support selected projects for Rapid Field Deployments.

Attendance at Here be Dragons is by invitation only, but all of the first day will be livestreamed, and all are invited to watch and to join the conversation about opening our ocean.

“I’m never surprised by what people don’t know about the ocean, because in many ways there’s no reason why they should know, and I’m out to change that,” Bell says. “For us to thrive on the ocean planet, it is critical for everyone to know why the ocean is important for all of us.” 

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