Accessing Samples Collected During Expeditions on NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer

Collecting a coral sample with the ROV

NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer is the only federal vessel dedicated to exploring our largely unknown ocean for the purpose of discovery and the advancement of knowledge. In close collaboration with government agencies, academic institutions, and other partners, NOAA Ocean Exploration conducts deep-ocean exploration expeditions using advanced technologies on Okeanos Explorer. From mapping previously unseen seafloor to collecting and disseminating ocean data and information, this work helps to establish baselines and fill data gaps.

In 2015, with the Hohonu Moana: Exploring the Deep Waters Off Hawai‘i expedition, NOAA Ocean Exploration incorporated the collection of a limited number of physical samples into remotely operated vehicle (ROV) operations during expeditions on Okeanos Explorer. Sampling capabilities were expanded in 2022 to include the collection of water samples for environmental DNA (eDNA) analysis during both ROV and mapping expeditions.


Sampling Operations on Okeanos Explorer

NOAA Ocean Exploration adheres to the federal government’s equal and open data policy concerning access to samples. Data collection methods and processing steps are fully documented and published for easy data discovery and access and to ensure long-term data stewardship. Information collected during expeditions on Okeanos Explorer is typically made publicly available 60-90 days after the end of an expedition. Access to samples is provided by the designated sample repositories (see below) as quickly as possible and is not subject to proprietary holds, with limited exceptions (e.g., samples collected in foreign waters, samples associated with sensitive maritime heritage sites, and specific sample collections funded by NOAA Ocean Exploration’s partners that may be temporarily withheld from public access for a specified period of time).

Unlike the typical sampling on conventional research expeditions, the objective of exploration sampling during expeditions on Okeanos Explorer is to collect a limited number of biological, geological, and water samples for the sole purpose of broadly characterizing a dive site/area of interest. This, combined with Okeanos Explorer’s limited onboard processing and storage capabilities, means that fewer samples are collected during NOAA Ocean Exploration’s ROV dive operations than those conducted during conventional research expeditions.

NOAA Ocean Exploration’s sampling operations are designed to minimize negative impacts on the local environment and other organisms. Ideally, only a sub-sample is taken of a biological organism (e.g., only a piece of a sponge or a branch of a coral). In all instances, the types and sizes of physical samples collected are limited to those that can be safely and efficiently collected with the ROV’s manipulator arms and associated tools and stored in its bioboxes, rock boxes, and sample jars.


Accessing Collected Biological Samples

Biological samples collected during expeditions on Okeanos Explorer are archived in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, which catalogs, curates, and makes them publicly available.

During at-sea sample processing, before other preservation methods are applied, small tissue samples are preserved in 95% ethanol for later genomic analyses (if the samples are big enough to allow for such subsampling). These tissue samples are archived in the Biorepository  at the National Museum of Natural History. These samples are linked to the catalog records in the Invertebrate Zoology or Division of Fishes of Vertebrate Zoology collections and can be accessed via their respective Collections Access web pages (see above). DNA samples collected between 2015 and 2018 were also archived at the Ocean Genome Legacy Center  at Northeastern University. See their Request Samples web page  for information on how to access DNA samples.


Accessing Collected Geological Samples

Geological samples collected during expeditions on Okeanos Explorer are archived in the Marine and Geology Repository at Oregon State University’s NOAA Collection (NOAA Rocks) . The repository provides online metadata information about each geological sample. See their Request Samples web page  for Information on how to access geological samples.


Digital Sampling Data

Digital records of data collected during expeditions on Okeanos Explorer are archived by NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) and available through the NOAA Ocean Exploration Data Atlas and NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer data landing pages. Available data include mapping, environmental, and navigation data; video from remotely operated vehicle dives; reports; peer-reviewed publications; and more.

For expeditions with sampling operations, the data atlas and landing pages also include sample metadata and links to the sample repositories. A geospatial data layer  in the data atlas includes the location of each publicly available physical sample collected during expeditions on Okeanos Explorer. To learn more about the data atlas and landing pages, visit Using the NOAA Ocean Exploration Data Access Tools.

For more information about samples collected during expeditions on Okeanos Explorer, see the Okeanos Explorer Sampling FAQs.