UWM staffer joins ocean exploration with man who discovered the Titanic

A woman stands aboard a ship on Lake Michigan with the Milwaukee skyline behind her.

For two weeks in November, Liz Sutton will trade her job as outreach manager at UWM’s School of Freshwater Sciences for a gig as a science communicator aboard the E/V Nautilus, sailing the coast of southern California. The Nov. 2-16 trip isn’t a vacation; it’s the opportunity of a lifetime.

The Nautilus is an exploration vessel operated by Robert Ballard, who found the final resting place of Titanic,which sunk in 1912. Ballard, who also is a UWM honorary degree recipient, launched his nonprofit Ocean Exploration Trust in 2008 with the goal of mapping unexplored regions of the world’s oceans.

UWM sets sail aboard E/V Nautilus

In addition to Ballard as a crew member, an array of professionals, from marine biologists to engineers, volunteer to keep the mission on track. And anyone in the world can join in the exploits by watching Nautiluslive.org, where they can find videos taken with remotely controlled cameras. Sutton’s role is to provide commentary on the live feeds and host interviews from the ship. Here, she explains this digital show-and-tell about the bottom of the Pacific.

In your job at the School of Freshwater Sciences, you educate K-12 students and the public about the Great Lakes ecosystems. What’s the best part of that?

Every day I get the chance to learn something new about water and the Great Lakes from the scientists at our school, which I then get to share with the community. This helps them understand our research, connects them to their water resources and makes water science meaningful in their daily lives.

Why did you apply for this fellowship? 

I am excited by the opportunity to explore the ocean with some of the world’s leading oceanographers, but also to share the importance and wonderment of water science with people in Wisconsin.

Describe some of your responsibilities as a communication fellow.

My primary role on the E/V Nautilus is as a facilitator for communicating science to shore-based audiences watching Nautilus Live. This involves logging video highlights, maintaining status updates on the website, moderating online interviews, and providing meaning and context to the live streaming broadcast for audiences. I also host live ship-to-shore interactions from the ship’s studio to allow connections with partner museums and classrooms. Operations on the ship are conducted 24 hours a day with three communication fellows for each expedition.

Does the cruise you are on have a specific goal?

More than 95 percent of the ocean is unexplored. Each cruise has objectives centered around biology, geology and archaeology, but the path changes constantly throughout the season as new discoveries come to light. During my expedition, we are focusing on the exploration of the submerged shorelines and sea caves in offshore banks of the southern California region.

What can exploration of the ocean tell us about fresh water lakes, like our own Lake Michigan?

Due to their sea-like characteristics – rolling waves, sustained winds, large size and their effect on our weather and climate – the five Great Lakes have long been referred to as inland seas that behave similar to oceans. The techniques and equipment we use to study the Great Lakes are quite like those used in ocean research. By exploring the oceans we can definitely learn more about the working systems of the Great Lakes.

 What are some of the wonders you’ve been able to see – or hope to show us – by watching the Nautilus’ work so far?

Each day I watch Nautilus Live I get to see amazing life deep in the ocean. One day it might be a deep-sea spider crab or a gulper eel. Another day it might be a tubeworm community located on top a hydrothermal vent. I’ve even seen a small, purple octopus with bug eyes that looked like a cartoon character! I also really enjoy watching the ingenuity of both high- and low-tech engineering involved in gathering data and exploring the ocean.

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