Grad student Leilani Sablan embarks on ‘once in a lifetime’ deep-sea research expedition
University of Guam graduate biology student and UOG Sea Grant biologist Leilani Sablan set sail into the Central Pacific on March 14 to partake in a deep-sea research expedition, joining a team of scientists, engineers, navigators, mappers, and remotely operated vehicle (ROV) pilots.
Sablan was selected to be an ocean science intern onboard the Exploration Vessel Nautilus of the Ocean Exploration Trust — a nonprofit founded by Robert Ballard, a National Geographic Society explorer-at-large who is best known for his discovery of the Titanic in 1985, among many other significant shipwreck discoveries.
Sablan will be helping to log data at Kingman Reef and Palmyra Atoll within the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. These deep-water areas are within one of the largest marine protected areas in the world, according to the Ocean Exploration Trust.
“It’s phenomenal to think I will be assisting in scientific exploration and discovery in Kingman Reef and Palmyra Atoll. These are some places I would never think I’d find myself — ever — in my life, and I feel this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Sablan said.
Sablan’s main responsibilities involve recording operational, scientific, and engineering observations; capturing ROV camera footage; and logging samples.
The crew of approximately 30 individuals seeks to accomplish 13 ROV dives to characterize seamount and ridge features, which will help determine if mesophotic areas result in greater biological diversity in comparison to deeper areas with same or similar features, Sablan said. The team also plans to compare specimens and video data to those of past expeditions in the region to help inform the identification of dense and diverse deep-water coral and sponge communities.
Sablan said these are just a few goals the team hopes to achieve by the conclusion of their voyage.
“Deep-sea exploration is outside my field of study, but stepping outside of my comfort zone to try something new will help me grow as a researcher and allow me to appreciate the different disciplines in marine science,” she said. “In terms of data logging and things I’m doing, it’s definitely building me as a scientist and allowing me to network with other scientists.”
Sablan’s master’s thesis examines non-commercial fisheries in Guam under the laboratory of Peter Houk, UOG Marine Laboratory professor and academic advisor to Sablan.
“Lani is a terrific student and researcher. I’m lucky to have students like her. The most important thing for Lani, now, is to expand her technical knowledge and grow her tangible experiences in ocean sciences, fisheries, and ecology. This is why the Nautilus journey is about more than participation and assisting a great effort. It’s also about personal growth, and I’m sure she’ll benefit from the experience,” Houk said.
In her capacity as a UOG Sea Grant biologist, Sablan studies Guam’s endangered green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) population.
“This at-sea venture is a great opportunity for up-and-coming scientists like Lani,” said Fran Castro, associate director of UOG Sea Grant, who originally encouraged her to apply. “She’s a go-getter, and I’m glad she jumped at the chance to take this once-in-a-lifetime experience on how to live and work on research vessels. It makes me proud to have our students on Guam participate in these activities around the region.”
UOG undergraduate biology student Pheona David will be the next intern to participate in an expedition onboard the Nautilus next month within the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.
The Nautilus Science & Engineering Internship Program is open to undergraduate and graduate students through Ocean Exploration Trust. The trust offers four types of paid internships: ocean science, seafloor mapping, video engineering, and ROV engineering. Applications will open in summer for the 2023 expedition season.