Thursday, May 1, 2014

Sylvia Earle's Daughter: An Ocean Legacy Continues

Kaki Flynn (left) with DOER Marine CEO and ocean explorer Liz Taylor, daughter of Dr. Sylvia Earle.

by Kaki Flynn

Liz Taylor's Speech to Oceans Conference

Liz Taylor and her husband Ian Griffith run DOER Marine, started by her very famous mom, Sylvia Earle, in 1992. 

Earle, a force in the ocean world, has impacted everything from conservation to the world of technology. 

Taylor, whose life, of course, has revolved around the ocean - recently worked on James Cameron's team responsible for the Deepsea Challenger expedition to the Mariana Trench.

"We dealt with safety-related parts of his submersible," said Taylor. "We did the review of the life support, the weight release strategy, and making sure there was some redundancy in those systems, which we had a large body of knowledge to draw from after years of designing subs built to hold from one to ten people."

For Taylor, it was a dream assignment.

"It was an experimental design, and a nice collaboration among many groups," says Taylor, who said a rewarding part of the project was reviewing each others work.

"We have our own machine shop, which also helped,"said Taylor.

One of the interesting challenges was the weight release strategy. 

James Cameron could get himself to the bottom of the Trench; the next big challenge was getting himself back up to the surface.

"There are a number of different ways to make that happen," says Taylor.

One part of that strategy is to drop weights, one is to drop pellets, and another option is to add an electric charge to a bolt, allowing you to shed more weight. 

DOER Submersibles was originally designed to be marine consulting work, but expanded in 1995 to include custom vehicles.

"We primarily build applied science ROVs," says Taylor. "Anywhere from 10 to 67 horsepower, which fills a niche that can't be served by the traditional vehicles and the war-class vehicles are overkill."

DOER investors include Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google and the founder of the Marine Science Technology Foundation.

The goal of the program Schmidt backed includes the build of two submersibles, the testing infrastructure to support them, along with other deep water equipment testing, and a glass research/development program.

In addition to working with moguls such as Cameron and Schmidt, DOER's clients are mostly universities, or people doing critical infrastructure inspections (dams, bridges).

"We can tailor each system to customers using common building blocks that let us customize it," says Taylor. "We have a lot of flexibility to meet size constraints."

At the Oceans Conference, Taylor and her husband talked about a Sub Ice Rover that was built for Northern Illinois University.

"It was a nice collaboration between the National Science Foundation, NOAA, the Moore Foundation and other groups," says Taylor.

This sub needed to be stretched into a long pencil shape so that it could fit down an ice boar hole 22 inches in diameter and 3,300 feet long.

"Once it's under the ice shelf, it unfolds itself like a kid's transformer toy," says Taylor. "This way particle analyzers and all kinds of testing equipment can have access to sea water."

 The Sub Ice Rover can spend up to ten days under the surface, bringing up terra bytes a day of data, as well as samples.

The ROV's DOER builds have also been used to support other projects, such as an ROV that supports the Pisces submersible at the University of Hawaii which includes the Aloha Station Observatory. 

Rated to 6,000 meters, the ROV was built to handle multiple missions, whether that's normal deep water exploration or sampling tasks.

Taylor's journey, long before building her own ROV's, started as a kid in the Florida ocean and growing up tagging along on her mom's ocean adventures both big and small. 

"We had a pet whelk shell nicknamed Lawrence," says Taylor. 

If you are Sylvia Earle, of course you are going to have the ocean all around you and your daughter, even on dry land.

"We had a salt water aquarium on the counter, and we learned how to properly collect sea life and press seaweed at age two," she adds, details that would come as no surprise to anyone that has met her mom, known in the ocean world as Her Deepness.

Similar to stories told by the Cousteau children, her entire scuba instruction consisted of, "Breathe normally." 

Taylor says she was around 8 or 9 that day she learned how to scuba dive while on a collecting trip with the Steinhart family in Hawaii, another "ocean famous" clan.

She did eventually get officially certified at the age of 12 through the NAUI while in the Bahamas and working with the HydroLab Mission with her mom.  

"She was living underwater and I was doing surface support," says Taylor.

"After I got my certification at age 12, I had to deliver to the lab a gallon of ice cream and Mount Gay Rum," Taylor jokes.

For all the decades of exploring and now building ROVs she has had the chance to participate in, what does Taylor see looking to the future of all things ocean?

"It's nice to see a little bit more of a move towards collaboration and sharing of data," says Taylor. 
"For so many years we have seen data hoarding."

She has also seen increased pressures on our ocean from things we are taking out of the ocean by mining rare earth metals, as well as a conflict with things we are putting in such as plastics and dispersants. 

"The better information we share, the better chances we have of meaningful, informed decisions being made," says Taylor. "We have a tremendous ways to go."

As far as exploring with or without people, Taylor says that DOER still advocates for the need for people in the sea, and for human-occupied habitats and submersibles.

"We can just replace everything we are doing in the sea with machines," she says, "But it's the full tool box approach that we see."

"We prefer to bring a full toolbox to solving problems and getting work done. There is a need for the glider, a need for the humans, and the AUV's, and the ROV's in the sea. So when we put an expedition together, we try to bring as many tools to the ship as possible."

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

50 Years of Excellence: Advances in Marine Technology

Drew Michel, the President of the Marine Technology Society, sums up the state of marine technology today in the book, Advances in Marine Technology, and brings up an important point few people on the planet stop to ponder:

The ocean is 70% of our planet.

How are we exploring those vast waters? Watch the footage of search mission for flight MH370 - a very large airplane - suddenly become as hard to find as a specific grain of sand on the beach, and it dawns on viewers how little we know about our ocean.

"When I entered this exciting arena in 1966 some commercial divers in the offshore oil fields of the Gulf of Mexico were still using "heavy gear" (brass helmets, canvas suits and lead boots) and the best form of ship-to-shore communications was single sideband radio, affected by everything from the weather to the time of day," points out Michel in the book.

Dive into the history of the extreme expeditions, such as James Cameron's multi-million dollar journey to the Mariana Trench, or learn about current programs that are bringing Remote Operated Vehicles (ROV) that cost only hundreds of dollars into the hands of school kids.

Get your copy here

Friday, September 27, 2013

An Ocean Current

The Ocean is a big place, and impacts our lives from how we get all the stuff we use (90 percent of the things you use spent some time on a container ship), to the air we breathe.

The Oceans Conference was just like the Ocean - big and complex, with a convergence of brilliant minds from many areas.

We've collected what feel like just a few drops of the information that we have gleaned from the 13 participating societies, 635 abstracts, 46 topics, 8 special topics, 35 countries, 95 student posters, 451 papers, 30 regular posters and 21 special sessions that happened.

Check back here for stories that carry us across the currents from San Diego to Canada, the site of the next Oceans Conference, and out into our Blue Planet.

If you have great photos and stories you know the world should see - please submit them here at my Twitter account:


For the Oceans,


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ocean Films: San Diego to Oslob

The Oceans 2013 conference kicked off with a film festival put on by the San Diego Underwater Photographic Society, show casing films from many places around the world, including 100 Miles by San Diego filmmaker Howard Hall that showed ocean life within 100 miles of San Diego to Befriending Giants, the Whale Sharks of Osloba by Shawn Heinrichs (watch the entire film below).

Befriending Giants - Whale Sharks of Oslob from Blue Sphere Media

From Jungle Cruise Operator to Ocean Explorer

By Kaki Flynn

When Tara Willis started her job as a ride operator on the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland, she became fascinated by the inner workings of the rides themselves, wondering how each piece came together to create the engineering marvels the park is famous for but something people don't often think about when immersing themselves in fantasy land.

Willis would pepper the engineers - known as Imagineers - with questions. They suggested she go to school and study electrical technology to learn more about working with machines so that she could move up in Disneyland.

It turns out Willis picked the perfect time to go back to school, and that choice has taken her on adventures that seem big even for Magic Kingdom-sized dreams.

As fate would have it, Willis picked the community college where Deidre Sullivan, the Director of MATE (Marine Advanced Technology Education Center) had set up a program to include robotics.

Sullivan has spent a good part of her life working for a Fortune 500 company and teaching scuba around the world. While that was certainly its own dream life, she had an even bigger dream. "I wanted to teach community college," says Sullivan.

"I had students that would come to college thinking that was enough, but were dropping out after a short time, without any mentors or help," she said.  "I wanted classes that mimicked the workforce, so I got a grant from the National Science Foundation."

The grant allowed Sullivan to build a program that includes being able to let students build Remote Operated Vehicles - called ROVs - for around $300.

A hallmark of all of MATE's programs is making sure that they are all aligned with ocean workforce research and trends.

"I started a brand new field at 30," says Willis, "and from there all sorts of opportunities have opened up for me."

Willis signed up for a robotics class, and found that she could apply all the electrical skills she was learning to the ROVs used to explore the ocean.

Willis was initially a history and theatre major, but her MATE internship allowed her to walk down a completely different path.

The combination was not a stretch for Willis, who grew up in Southern California and got scuba certified around the age of 12. "I have always had a passion for the ocean," she said.

That combination of skills and passion landed her a coveted spot with National Geographic Explorer Dr. Robert Ballard on the E/V Nautilus, a pioneer in the development of advanced deep submergence.

Willis has already had a couple of tours on the Nautilus.

She loves her work so much that Ballard asked her if there was something wrong with her sleeping quarters, because Willis is known on board for needing very little sleep.

Her job with Ballard is as an ROV Pilot and a technician, her most recent trip being to the Caribbean. The group started out in Puerto Rico, and was involved in biological, geological and archeological studies.

"The first two legs were geared toward two tectonic plates that meet north of Puerto Rico. where there are lots of faults and fractures."

A big part of the expeditions planned by Ballard involve live feeds from the ship to different groups such as schools that want to learn more, a part of her job Willis enjoys.

"You get all kinds of questions," she said, like the recent one from a 4-year old that had logged on with his parents to watch the crew at work.

He asked her, "Is piloting (the ROV) like playing a video game?"

"Yes, like a 5 million dollar video game," she answered.

In between traveling with the world famous explorer, she is back on the Jungle Cruise as a ride operator.

While the animatronic hippo may not pose the dangers of the open ocean, she is still able to work along side some pretty amazing people.

"I have been on the boat with John Lasseter, and trained his son Bennett on the Indiana Jones ride,"says Willis. Lasseter is the chief creative officer of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, and also got his start working on the Jungle Cruise.

Sullivan likes having the ROV program at a community college, because you have a lot of people like Willis that can't waste time and can't waste money.

Willis was one of the 30 students sponsored to attend the Oceans 2013 Conference in San Diego, Calif., which allowed her to meet with people from many parts of the ocean world.


This story is from the 2013 Ocean Conference held in San Diego, Calif.  Thanks to Kevin Hardy for access to some of these amazing women.