November 5, 2015

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Exploring over 1,500 miles of vibrant ocean in the South Pacific this past month, the Mission Blue II Voyage marked an important milestone for 21st century ocean conservation and underscored support at the highest levels for Hope Spots, Mission Blue’s flagship initiative. Aboard the 340-foot National Geographic Lindblad Expeditions Orion, world leading marine scientists, conservationists, policy makers, researchers, technologists and influencers traveled along the Pacific Equator from Papua New Guinea to the Solomon Islands and participated in an ocean symposium hosted and filmed by TED. Dr. Sylvia Earle, founder of Mission Blue, was as much a part of the onboard brainstorming as the underwater exploration that led to amazing finds like the ancient, oversized coral above.


The Coral Triangle Hope Spot (Photo: TED)

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Mission Blue II Voyage Route (Image: Jonathan Knowles)

In her TED filmed talk aboard the Mission Blue II Voyage, which will be made available at a later date, Dr. Sylvia Earle spoke on the importance of Hope Spots, saying, “this area is blessed with one of the world’s greatest ocean treasures, the legendary “Coral Triangle,” a Hope Spot for the ocean, for the people of the region and for the world. Stressed by overfishing and pollution,  protection is urgently needed to restore and maintain health—and hope—for the future. Guarding the ocean means guarding your life. Now is the time to act.”

Dr. Sylvia Earle prepares for her TED talk on the Mission Blue II Voyage (Photo: Carl Safina)

The Coral Triangle Hope Spot includes the tropical waters surrounding the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste, and the Solomon Islands. With the highest diversity of coral species on Earth, the Coral Triangle is a natural treasure and is widely considered the “Amazon of the seas.” It also provides habitat to the “living fossil” coelacanth, six out of the seven species of sea turtle and large populations of tuna, which help fuel the global commercial tuna fishing industry. Over 120 million people call the Coral Triangle home and depend on its reef ecosystem for food, their livelihoods and storm protection. Threats to marine life in this region include climate change, coral bleaching, ocean acidification, overfishing and destructive fishing tactics like cyanide and dynamite fishing.

The Mission Blue II Voyage documented coral bleaching in the Coral Triangle. (Photo: Kristin Hettermann)

Technology played a pivotal role in the Mission Blue II Voyage and focused the symposium’s attention on how much design, 3D printing, robotics, augmented and virtual reality, submersibles, world-building, and other emergent technologies have to offer ocean conservation efforts. Long a great friend of Mission Blue and Dr. Sylvia Earle, Jonathan Knowles, Autodesk Director of Strategic Initiatives and head of operations for Autodesk Maritime R&D, was seen during the week totting a Mission Blue flag around the Orion. Jonathan taught workshops to expedition participants while on board using Autodesk’s remarkable reality capture technology, Memento, which is paving the way for a new generation of underwater research for scientists and citizen scientists alike. In the workshops, which included hands-on dives, he demonstrated how the technology captures entire segments of coral reefs and turns them into highly detailed 3D computable models, allowing accurate measurements, engaging visuals, and monitoring of these valuable biological organisms over time.

Dr. Sylvia Earle and Johnathan Knowles, Director of Strategic Initiatives at Autodesk, don the Mission Blue flag.

Dr. Sylvia Earle and Jonathan Knowles, Director of Strategic Initiatives at Autodesk, don the Mission Blue flag.

One technology that was creating buzz on the voyage was the Queensland University of Technology’s COTSbot, an intelligent robotic submersible that utilizes advanced computer vision to identify invasive crown of thorns starfish—a huge problem that is plaguing the region. Once identified the robot uses an arm to inject the starfish with a euthanizing saline solution. There simply aren’t enough human divers available to eradicate these animals from the vast expanses of reef they are destroying, and automated robotics offers real potential to turn the tables on the crown of thorns. The device can search for up to eight hours at a time and deliver more than 200 lethal shots. How cool is that?


A COTSbot euthanizes an invasive sea star. (Photo: Queensland University of Technology)

As the keynote presenter of the TED symposium, Dr. Sylvia Earle recognized the tireless work of the assembled group in finding new and more effective ways to protect and explore the ocean. She discussed how new technologies—from satellite mapping to underwater robotics—can serve to leapfrog ocean conservation efforts into the 21st century. Above all, Dr. Earle underscored the support she had observed for Hope Spots among the world-leading crowd of ocean scientists, policy makers and influencers. In her speech, she asked everyone in the room to physically stand up in solidarity for creating a global network of Hope Spots to save and restore the ocean. It was little surprise that the whole room stood in unity and applause. The voyagers even took a fun group picture the next day with Dr. Earle at the center.

The Mission Blue II voyagers stand in unity around Dr. Earle (Photo: Ryan Nash)

The Mission Blue II voyagers stand in unity around Dr. Earle (Photo: Ryan Nash)

At the conclusion of the voyage, Mission Blue and Dr. Earle received pledges of support from several organizations and individuals keen to help build a global network of Hope Spots. Mission Blue has also finalized plans to launch a mobile ocean conservation channel with Tone in the Coral Triangle Hope Spot in the coming weeks. Stay tuned for more updates and the eventual release of the TED talks from the Mission Blue II voyage. To learn more about Mission Blue expeditions click here

Featured Image (top): Explorer Dr. Sylvia Earle examines a giant sea fan in the Coral Triangle Hope Spot. (Photo: Tom Gruber)

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