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Scientists get ship backed by Google executive

The RV Falkor and the submersible Nereus.

The RV Falkor and the submersible Nereus.

Pitching and yawing in swells from the tail end of a typhoon, the oceanographic research vessel RV Falkor looked like it was dead in the water.

It was September, and scientists from the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole were waiting for the Pacific Ocean to become calm enough to deploy a deep-sea robotic diver from the Falkor. The mission was to collect samples of microbes and viruses in the seabed at an underwater volcano named the Axial Seamount, off the coast of Oregon, but they were running out of time.

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Then a clearing in the weather provided a small window. Cramming 10 days of work into three, the Falkor crew scrambled, and, during one sleepless 24-hour period, got off four deep-sea dives with its submersible and collected a trove of data from one of the most extreme environments on earth.

The Falkor crew “seem willing to try anything, which was sort of surprising,” said Julie Huber of the Marine Biological Laboratory. “It was very challenging weather, a challenging situation, and they were willing to push the limits as much as possible.”

Not bad for a newcomer.

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The Falkor is not one of the battle-tested ships in Woods Hole’s fleet of famed oceanographic research vessels. The Pacific expedition was one of the first since the boat was retrofitted and relaunched as an oceanographic research vessel. Moreover, the Falkor is the work of relative amateurs, at least by ocean science standards.

But the Falkor’s backers have other credentials that have made them an immediate power in oceanography.

They are Wendy Schmidt and her husband, Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of the Internet giant Google Inc. Schmidt knows more than a little about mapping the world, and the couple are not only very wealthy, but committed to using their money to protecting and exploring the environment.

The Schmidts were struck by how little is known about the oceans, particularly super-deep environments that are simultaneously exotic and hostile. They were also dismayed to learn how little government support oceanographic research receives. Federal funding for oceangoing research cruises has declined steeply, and the fleet of research vessels is down to just 19 ships, from 26 in 1995.

Though based in California, the Schmidts own a home on Nantucket, where Wendy Schmidt has become a force in island life and commerce. She credits her summers on Nantucket, where she learned to sail and dive, with sparking her interest in the oceans.

“When you’re on an island and you’re surrounded by water, you recognize both your isolation and your connection at the same time,” she said. “You can understand your environmental impact. . . . It’s a little like being on a ship at sea.”

The Schmidts purchased the boat, previously used for fisheries protection in Germany, for $2 million and spent another $60 million to refit the 272-foot steel-hulled ship.

Wendy Schmidt renamed the ship, formerly the Seefalke, after the dragonlike character in a German fantasy novel, “The Neverending Story.’’ Though water is lethal to dragons, the story goes, Falkor discovers a magic amulet that allows him to take the plunge.

The pair also started Schmidt Ocean Institute in Palo Alto in 2009 to run the vessel and administer grants to offset the expense of using oceanography ships, which can cost $30,000 or more per day.

“Building a state-of-the art research vessel was a great way to solve that problem for scientists,” Eric Schmidt said. “It’s a natural way to connect Wendy’s passion for the oceans and my interests in communications and technology.”

The Schmidts join a number of private philanthropists interested in ocean sciences. The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation — run by Gordon Moore, the former Intel Corp. chief executive — offers research grants on an invitation basis. Film director James Cameron recently gave the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution the manned submersible he designed for his 2012 record-breaking 35,787-foot dive into the Mariana Trench — or 6.8 miles.

Last year was the first full year of operation for the Falkor. Previous missions included sailing to the deepest part of the Caribbean, the mid-Cayman Rise, to explore hydrothermal vents 23,000 feet below the surface, and before that analyzing the ecosystem in the oil spill area around the Deepwater Horizon platform in the Gulf of Mexico.

Next year, the Schmidt Institute has even bigger plans for the Falkor. It will collaborate with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which will build a state-of-the-art submersible especially for the Falkor. The submersible will be one of just two remotely operated vehicles worldwide, in addition to one owned by WHOI, and will be capable of reaching the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific, the deepest point in any ocean.

The Falkor can also launch submersibles owned by others, such as the Canadian-owned ROPOS, used in the Axial Seamount voyage. But operating the ROPOS proved difficult on the small ship; the crew had to work around its bulky, heavy gear.

The new submersible for the Falkor will be easier to work with and enhance the young institute’s reputation within the scientific community, said Chris German, chief scientist for Deep Submergence at the WHOI, who sailed on the Falkor in June.

“They’re going to get more and more into being a slick operation,” German said. “Scientists who go out with them are going to know what they’re going to get. It’s not just going to be the risk-taking scientists who are going to put a week or a month on the line.”

The Schmidt Institute has pronounced ambitions for the Falkor. While federal agencies tend to focus on low-risk projects because of limited funds, German said, the Schmidt Institute has said it is committed to higher-risk explorations.

In June, for instance, the Falkor gave oceanographers their first chance to subject the WHOI-owned submersible Nereus to a particularly significant deep-water scientific expedition: the dive to the Mid-Cayman Rise, a chain of submerged volcanoes in the Caribbean that formed where two tectonic plates are spreading apart.

Hot fluids circulating through rocks at such ridges create black smokers: hydrothermal vents that gush out superheated fluid and nutrients, supporting a plethora of weird and little-studied life forms.

The scientists collected not only photos and videos — available on the institute’s website — but rocks, mineral deposits from vent chimneys, and microbial samples.

Unlike the ROPOS, which is supported by a strong steel cable, the Nereus could be dunked deep only with a slender tether. “That was the first time we demonstrated that you could do multidisciplinary science with a lightly tethered vehicle,” German said. The Falkor’s new submersible will aim for similar goals.

The Schmidt Institute also intends to make as much of the data as possible immediately available, said Victor Zykov, its director of research. This includes donating geographic data to Google, which makes the information freely available via Google Earth.

Wendy Schmidt tells a story about meeting the renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle on Nantucket, only to have Earle rebuke Google Earth for purporting to show the geography of the entire world.

“Why don’t you just call it Google Dearth?” she recalled Earle’s saying, noting that the program largely ignored the ocean floor. “You’re missing half the globe!”

Now though, thanks to the Falkor, Google Earth displays 20,000 square kilometers of mapping data from the Campeche Escarpment, an enormous underwater cliff along a crater in the Gulf of Mexico.

Already deeply enmeshed with Woods Hole scientists, Schmidt Institute officials promise their relationship with the renowned Cape Cod facility will only grow.

Which is good news to Julie Huber, whose lab work at Woods Hole is funded half by private funds.

“What I love about it is these foundations are really willing to take risks, where our government is not. That I think is really fun, it’s really exciting,” said Huber. “Often the great discoveries in science are unplanned.”

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story about the Schmidt Ocean Institute incorrectly identified the sources of funding for scientist Julie Huber. Half of her funding comes from private sources. Also a photo caption incorrectly identified one of the scientists in the story. She is Jill McDermott of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

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