Scott Collins, BHP Teacher
Illinois, USA

Where would we be without explorers? What would life be like if our search for answers stopped at our city limits; if no one was willing to ford the river to search the lands on the other side? Thankfully, this question is merely rhetorical, as our species has always been enriched by pioneers willing to think big and act even bigger. One of my very first childhood memories involves sitting with my grandma, a big thinker herself, and looking through her massive collection of National Geographic magazines. I remember the stunning photos of National Geographic Explorers mapping new ecosystems, discovering new species, and bringing home more information and answers about our world. I recall pictures of one particular explorer, Jacques Cousteau, as he dove in uncharted waters with his camera, filming underwater life as it had never been seen. Despite all of Cousteau’s work, we still know way more about outer space than we do about our oceans.

Thirty-five years later, explorers are still trying to answer the same questions. Cousteau’s quest to shed light on the world’s oceans has since been taken up by Dr. Robert Ballard, also a National Geographic Explorer, aboard his 211-foot ship, the E/V Nautilus. Dr. Ballard is most famous for discovering deep-sea vents along with the wreckage of the Titanic. Here is where this story comes full circle: During the spring of 2019, I was given a STEM teaching award and invited to join Dr. Ballard aboard the Nautilus on the first leg of his 2019 research expedition.  This first leg was to take us to the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California, where our goal was to collect high-resolution mapping data on the ocean floor and investigate submerged caves in the California Borderland region. A green light from my principal, several sub plans, and a flight later, we were cruising from the Port of Long Beach toward the Channel Islands and, we hoped, more answers to so many questions still hidden in our ocean’s depths.

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Satellites pinpointed our position as remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) launched from the deck of the Nautilus. The two ROVs—Argus and Hercules—traveled to depths of 100 meters where they cast LED lights on the submerged caves of interest. Changing scale and zooming out to a time 15,000 years ago, the caves that we were investigating off the Channel Islands weren’t always under this much water—in fact, they weren’t under any water at all. As you’re aware, the last ice age ended roughly 12,000 years ago. Prior to this change in global climates, temperatures were much colder, thus trapping more of the ocean’s water as ice in glaciers. Less water meant lower ocean levels, so much lower that during this Paleolithic time period, the rock formations that Argus and Hercules illuminated on the ocean floor were shorelines, battered by the lapping of waves and cut into the caves now submerged under 100 meters of melt.

I sat in the control van next to Dr. Ballard as he directed the ROVs in, out, and around our Paleolithic caves. Hercules mapped the landscape, sending back stunning, three-dimensional images of a world gone by. I felt myself going back in time, noticing clearly the spots where Paleolithic people would have ventured down from the cliffs to access tidepools with their abundance of food sources. I saw where the first people to cross the land bridge into North America might have stopped to take shelter on their journey south. A once vibrant shoreline alive with the sounds of shore birds and crashing waves now silent and dark under 300 feet of water.

My experience aboard the Nautilus with National Geographic Explorer Bob Ballard was a profound one. The Nautilus was more than a converted spy ship-cum-research vessel. To me, it was a time machine taking all of us back to an era when the Earth looked much different than it does now. It was a truly authentic lesson in time scale unlike any I’ve ever had. We set out with the mission of mapping Paleolithic shorelines and left with a tangible insight into the life of the earliest Americans. Dr. Ballard’s research into these caves is ongoing, leaving the end of this story truly to be continued…

Author: Scott Collins is a high-school science teacher in Lemont, IL. In addition to BHP, he teaches AP biology, honors biology, and integrated science. His school is on a semester system. Scott’s eleventh- and twelfth-grade BHP classes run about 85 minutes long and focus heavily on the science content. About 60 students per year join him on the 13.8-billion-year journey.

Header image: EV Nautilus, Ocean Exploration Trust/Institute for Exploration, Susan E. Poulton, Media Relations, E/V Nautilus, CC BY-SA 3.0.

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