Monterey Canyon Mystery Tour

Latest update March 28, 2019 Started on October 25, 2018

Reaching depths of up to 3,600m below the surface of the Pacific Ocean and extending almost 100 miles offshore, the Monterey Submarine Canyon is a massive seafloor feature that defines the Monterey Bay in Central California, USA. Though equally as deep and striking as the world-famous Grand Canyon, the Monterey Canyon fades from public interest due to its obscured domain thousands of meters below the surface of the Ocean. We have set out to explore this magnificent canyon via multibeam sonar and scientific instrumentation to learn about the geologic processes that shape the Monterey Bay and understand how the features themselves influence the vibrant Monterey Bay ecosystem.

October 25, 2018
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Through all of his hard work toward developing our multibeam system, Marcel Peliks found time to apply to NOAA’s “Explorer In Training” Program. This program provides current or recent undergraduate and graduate students with the opportunity to gain experience using an advanced multibeam bathymetric sonar mapping system, while contributing in a significant way to the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer (picture below) ocean exploration mission. The Okeanos Explorer is known as “America’s Ship for Ocean Exploration”, being the is the only federal vessel dedicated to exploring our largely unknown ocean for the purpose of discovery and the advancement of knowledge about the deep ocean.

Guess what! He was chosen! Marcel will be joining the crew aboard the Okeanos Explorer for an expedition off the southeast coast of Florida from mid-May through mid-June 2019. He’ll receive training in acquiring seafloor mapping and water column data from the best of the best, complete an individual project to show off his skills, and bring back expertise to apply to the continual development of our system here at Moss Landing Marine Labs. Not to mention, enjoy a month of life at sea.

And more exciting news, we can join him aboard the ship from the comfort of our own desks! The expedition crew will be dedicated to 24 hour/day telepresence so we can follow along with the expedition and see what they’re mapping in real time. We’ll be sure to share the link when the time comes.

Congratulations Marcel!


The last few weeks have been busy and exciting: Writing proposals, contacting potential equipment donors, testing instruments, and researching canyon processes. We finally got a controller for the ROV we received from S.E.E / Nat Geo and did some preliminary tests in our aquarium facility at Moss Landing Marine Labs. The system is truly turn-key and basically ready to go out of the box. Although it was fun to drive (dive?) around the 5’x3’ aquarium tank, we really wanted to see what it could do in the ocean.

The constant rain in central California throughout all of February and beginning of March has kept our field time to a minimum but we did manage to sneak out for a test in the ocean on one clear day. We compiled the footage into a short video that you can view below (this was our first time controlling the ROV in open water so it is not the smoothest viewing experience but we added some music to make it more entertaining!) enjoy!

We got some exciting news! A few weeks ago we applied to National Geographic's Open Explorers S.E.E Initiative to win a Trident ‘underwater drone’ from Open ROV. The good news is...we got it! Thank you to all of you who followed our expedition, we could not have done it without you. The ROV (remotely operated vehicle) is a really really cool tool and will be instrumental in helping us field check our study of the canyon. If you are interested in the specifications of what this thing can do more information can be found at the link below:

We are really excited because with the ROV we will finally get a glance at the mysteries that lie beneath the surface of the Monterey Bay, something we have been curious about since the beginning of our expedition. The ROV has just arrived at our lab and we are going to test it out as soon as we get it set up so keep an eye out for some initial images/videos coming out soon!

Thank you again to all who have signed up to help us win this exciting tool, we are happy to have you on board for the expedition!


With the success we had a few weeks ago out on our Whaler we were excited to finally look at our data, especially since it would be our first glimpse of the Mysterious Monterey Canyon Head! We have a program called Qimera to process our multibeam bathymetry data. A great thing about this is that it runs seamlessly with our data acquisition software (QINSy) as they are both part of one company (QPS). QPS helped us out tremendously by sponsoring our work and we owe them a huge thank you for letting us use their awesome software.

Our survey uploads into the program with no problem and a step-by-step instruction window makes setting up our point cloud very straightforward. Nevertheless, the more we look at our data the more our excitement begins to wane. Pat’s words about the need for more instruments are finally validated before our eyes. We’re missing an adequate GPS, speed of sound in water measurements, and perhaps most importantly boat motion measurements...consequently, our data is not yet accurate enough for scientific study. As you can see in the images below, overlapping swaths on our track do not line up. This is not because the seafloor changed within the few minutes between our surveys, but rather, this error is likely due to variations of the surface of the water due to waves and ripples (and the lack of motion control in our set up).

It’s beginning to look like the next challenge on our journey will not be untangling wires or troubleshooting connections but rather figuring out how to acquire the remaining instruments we need to conduct accurate surveys. To quote Pat again, basically we have a car without wheels, our system will run but can’t yet do the job we need it to do.

Ideally, we would like to acquire an integrated system where all the instruments are connected seamlessly - increasing efficiency and minimizing time lag. The two main choices for this type of setup are the Kongsberg pole mounted setup and the Applanix POS MV. Unfortunately, neither of these systems are cheap and our student pockets are not exactly the deepest. Nevertheless, we are motivated because we believe our study will revolutionize our understanding of submarine canyons and the surrounding coastal environment, and so...grant writing, here we come!

P.S. if anyone out there has any leads on where we could find these instruments used, please let us know!

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It has been about two weeks since our morale killing day at the harbor and we’ve decided it’s finally time to face our fears and get back out on our trusty Whaler. Fortunately, this time we are armed with our bulletproof field computer (thanks again, Tom!) and new troubleshooting skills and technical knowledge (thanks again, Pat!). We set up everything as we have always done and run a ZDA string (time information) from our GPS instead of relying on our computer to keep time. We also have the GPS directly hooked up to our computer via one Null modem serial cable instead of a Serial to USB as we had in our previous set up. We are constantly learning about small intricacies that allow for more precise and reliable surveying. We get a connection straight away but unlike before, we don’t feel that we got ‘lucky’ this time. We feel we actually did things’s a good feeling.

We leave the dock and start our survey of the harbor. Getting good readings and not losing our GPS or multibeam signal feels like a long overdue victory. I ask Marcel if we should get out of the stinky harbor and take our first peak at the actual Monterey Canyon. He seconds immediately, it sounds like a great idea. The weather is perfect, no wind, calm seas, warm breeze. We get greetings from otters and sea lions as we make our way out into the open water. Observing on our Navigation display we see that we’re getting to the real deal when we start getting soundings from over 30 meters depth. We are both excited as we swing a few laps in the deep water. The hours of sifting through manuals and troubleshooting our instruments finally feel worth it and we feel like we are ready to take on any challenges that come up next!


In an earlier post, we mentioned that deep water mapping technology doesn’t really work in shallow water. We’d like to take a second to discuss why that is. Underwater mapping takes advantage of the fact that sound travels super-fast underwater (~1500 meters per second), much faster than it does in air (only ~340 meters per second!). Whales and dolphins know this and use sound to communicate with each other. Scientists too, have figured out how to direct sound at the seafloor, listen for its reflection, and calculate depth of the seafloor. Usually, a transducer (speaker) is mounted on the hull (bottom) of a ship and set to emit a certain pitch of sound. Then, a hydrophone/receiver (underwater microphone) listens for that certain pitch back and records the amount of time between the emission and return of sound... speed*time = distance! There are a lot of things that can create some error in bathymetric mapping, a few of which we’ll outline here:

Speed of sound in water: this tends to change with changing temperature, salinity (basically the saltiness of water), and depth. The speed of sound is multiplied by the time between emission and return (and divided by two since it’s traveling down and back), to get the depth of the seafloor. Different frequencies and wavelengths of sound are also used in deep vs. shallow environments, as they attenuate (fade out) differently.

Motion of the ocean: Since the speaker is attached to the hull of the ship, it moves around as the ship moves. Boats move around a whole lot due to ocean waves, so we must be able to measure this motion very precisely. The motion of a ship can be referred to as the roll, pitch, heave, and yaw. Ahoy Matey! Most transducers emit sound many times per second, more in shallow water than deep water, so quick and synchronized measurements are critical.

Tides: In shallow water, tides can range as much as 11 feet in certain places around the world. Tides act to change the depth of water that a ship would experience, but don’t change the true depth of the seafloor, so must be accounted for.

The first shallow water multibeam system was available in the early 1970’s, but our ability to tightly synchronize all measurements and handle the amount of data being collected wasn’t quite there back then. In shallow water, almost an order of magnitude more soundings are generated per unit time than in deep water and therefore need many more position and boat motion measurements to ensure accurate depth detection. This stuff wasn’t really all integrated until the late 80s, and the prices of these types of systems aren’t all that much cheaper now. In summary, different frequencies, more accurate boat motion measurements, and data needs have challenged scientists in the past. But now, more and more shallow areas are being mapped as we speak.

All this time, we’ve been using a regular old indoors Toshiba laptop...could it be that this laptop just isn’t mighty enough to handle what we’re trying to make it do? Our friend Tom Connolly comes through to let us borrow his trusty field laptop...this thing is bullet proof and has the brightest screen, bright enough to still see it in the sun! Thanks Tom! It’s made for field work, is water resistant, and has a million ports to handle our many instruments. We set out to connect our three team players, the multibeam, the GPS, and the computer, but get nothing. Is it an operating system problem? A wiring issue? Is this computer not so mighty after all? Is it still an issue with our GPS? We rack our brains and the internet for solutions but come up short. Between the problems we had out on the boat last week and our issues today we’re seriously beginning to doubt ourselves...It’s time to ask for help.

We call in Pat Iampietro, the multibeam-mobbin king of California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB). Pat has set up many a multibeam system with CSUMB’s Seafloor Mapping Lab, and came to the rescue to help us troubleshoot our new system. We learn more about baud rates, null-modem cables, Ethernet and IP addresses within an hour than we did for the entire last month. We also learn the steps to troubleshoot a GPS, so now have at least our GPS connection down Pat (:D). Pat saves the day and instills in us confidence with our “magic” procedure, which is suddenly a solid procedure that actually makes sense in reality. Couldn’t have made it this far without you, Pat!

On the downside, Pat also reinforces the inequity of our system without a number of key instruments. In order to get accurate data from our surveys, we need to be able to precisely measure the speed of sound in water, the motion of the ocean, and the heading of our vessel. Having a multibeam sonar without those key components is like having a car without wheels Pat says. Unfortunately, it turns out this equipment can actually cost more than the multibeam sonar head itself…as we continue to prove that we can use the instruments we already have, we must also find a way to obtain these critical missing components of our dreamed up “Monterey Canyon Mystery Exploration Machine”.


We still haven’t figured out why our multibeam signal disconnected on the water the other day so we are back at the harbor to see if it could have been a fluke. This time we roll into the harbor like old pros. We hop straight into the boat and hook up all our instruments with the confidence of a kid who has just tied their shoe for the 100th time. We run through our trusty magic procedure excited about how we’re getting everything really dialed in and hit connect. As we should have expected for the way we came in this morning, our ego gets absolutely crushed when we see an unmistakably erroneous red font where our GPS location should be. Has our magic procedure failed us?? This can’t be….something MUST be wrong with the GPS.

We dive straight into the GPS controller and start clicking away at everything that can be clicked (and a lot of things that cannot). We learn a lot about what can be clicked, that’s for sure...but alas 4 hours later and we still don’t have a signal. Defeated and out of ideas, we set out for a Thai food brain break. There must have been something in the Pad Thai because immediately when we get back to the computer Miya’s wizard eyes spot a ‘reset GPS’ icon deep in the world of drop-down menus. We have no idea what the consequences of resetting the GPS are, but at this point, we are happy to see what happens. We hold our breath as our GPS seems to freeze for a solid minute, and then as if awoken from the dead, connects to the network and our red font turns the sweet sweet solid black color we knew and loved from previous experiments!

We feel like we just beat the last level in a long and tiring game and though we are relieved, we can’t necessarily feel happy because we wasted an entire day tied up to the dock and haven’t gotten any data. Seemingly to kick us when we’re down, our GPS signal turns red again and we’re back to square one. We are never coming in with hot egos ever again...It’s dusk now and we’re out of ideas and energy, we motor in with our tails between our legs and sulkily return our equipment back to the lab.

Today has taken a toll on our morale. It makes no sense that some days our system runs flawlessly while the next we are unable to even get a basic GPS signal. We are beginning to question everything from our procedure, the integrity of our instruments, and the processing power of our computer. We will have to do some serious thinking to resolve these questions...maybe our magic has run out!

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To say I’m nervous about taking $30,000 worth of instruments out on a boat with no previous boating or multibeam experience would be barely scratching the surface of describing my anxiety. Fortunately, with Miya’s expert boat driving experience, Ivano’s unshakable faith that we won’t lose his recently acquired thousand dollar instruments, and the friendly faces of our marine operations team, I begin to feel superficially reassured. The Moss Landing Marine Lab shop guys built us an awesome pole mount to attach our multibeam to a 17’ Boston Whaler, so we put the multibeam in the water and plug everything in.

We go through our ‘magic’ procedure still tied to the dock and for the first time ever we get connected off the bat! We are in slight disbelief but keep moving lest our luck run out. We untie from the dock and motor out to get some footage of what lies in the murky waters of the Moss Landing Harbor. Our excitement has skyrocketed as the bottom appears, we’re pushing our computer to maximum capacity by loading display after display trying to get as much information as we can. Soon enough, our computer has had enough and kaput, our multibeam signal is lost. Well, at least we didn’t lose any equipment or crash the boat so we’re calling it a successful mission for now, we’ll worry about why we lost our multibeam signal later...

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We’ve finally mustered up the courage to see if all the work we’ve been putting into setting up the system in our lab amounts to anything in the real world. We pile everything onto our trusty “boat” (a cart) and “motor” (roll) out to the corp yard to get a GPS signal. After connecting all our wires and tossing the multibeam sonar head into a bucket of cool water (not the best analogy for the mighty Monterey canyon...but good enough to prevent overheating) we hit connect and pray that something will actually come through.

Well...unfortunately we get nothing. Back to the drawing board. We find ourselves some buckets to sit on and defeatedly roll into the shade where we can see our computer screen. After scrolling through seemingly endless drop-down menus and re-starting everything that has a button...we figured out our troubles stemmed from our port number designation being off by one number (2002 vs. 20002)...we get a feeling that attention to detail will be a big theme on this mission. Hooking everything back up and running through our “magic” procedure (turn on GPS, open device manager, open controller, connect, close controller, snap fingers twice, open QINSY online mode, open M3 Software, rub get the idea) we finally get a signal from both our GPS and Multibeam! Victorious and in high spirits, we roll back out into the yard to get some images of...well, the inside of our bucket :) not so exciting but we can pretend it's the canyon. Unfortunately, our extension cable hooking us up to power is only about 10’ long so we don’t get too far. We “motor back to shore” but still count this mission as a success!

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As glorious as our dream of mapping the mysteries of the Monterey Canyon are, we know we first have to undertake the inglorious tasks of sifting through hundreds of pages of manuals and untangling mounds of cables before we earn our time out on the water. And so it begins...COM Ports, Null Modem Serial Cables, Ethernet ports, IP addresses, NMEA sequences. Device Manager and Search Engines become our best friends and we are learning a lot (or at least, think we are).

Our main tools so far are a Kongsberg M3 Multibeam and Trimble ProXH GPS, we are using the Kongsberg M3 software and QINSY to acquire data. Our goal right now is to set up communication between our computer and our two main instruments (multibeam and GPS) and then set up a database to which we can then log our information. Look out for our step by step instructions on how to set up multibeam databases and connect instruments in a future post!


The Monterey Canyon is peculiar in that we know more about the canyon in the deep than we do about the part in our own backyard. A lot of research by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) and California State University’s Seafloor Mapping Lab (SFML) have used deep water mapping technology and other high-tech equipment to study the canyon in the deep. From these studies, we know that massive underwater landslides occur periodically at the edges of the canyon, and have been shown to move sand, mud, and rocks miles down into the deep. We aren’t sure why they happen, and they don’t seem to match up with earthquakes or storms.

Our mission to unlock the mysteries of the Monterey Canyon has to do with figuring out what causes these huge landslides. It could be related to the coastal sand transport system…maybe sand from beaches in the Monterey Bay makes it to the head of the canyon, builds up, and causes a slide? It’s possible our beach sand is being lost to the deep forever!

The canyon head hasn’t really been studied in the past because deep water equipment doesn’t really work in shallow water (see a future post to find out why!). That’s where we come in – we will use our new shallow water specific system to map the head of the canyon more frequently than ever before and see if we can link it with our other efforts of tracking beach change, ocean waves, and storms.

Expedition Background

The Monterey Bay Area contains the highest concentration of marine scientists in the world. The Bay’s geologic crown jewel, the Monterey Submarine Canyon has by default received much interdisciplinary attention from some of the brightest minds in marine science. Previous studies have conducted extensive mapping, diving, and sampling missions that have answered important questions regarding the canyons morphology, composition, and geology.

However, as traditional science missions are based upon large vessels, they often rack up huge operational costs and are limited in frequency. Long term changes in the canyon have been well studied, but to truly understand the mechanisms that shape our coast, we must also understand the morphologic changes that occur on short time scales. In other words, our understanding of the most important geologic feature of the Monterey Bay, is still incomplete!

Our expedition begins at Moss Landing Marine Labs where we have outfitted a (modest by all standards) 17’ Whaler, with a GPS and multibeam sonar system. Considering we have recently acquired this multibeam system, Goal #1 of our expedition is to get the thing up and running. This involves pulling on our tech-brains, conducting seemingly endless troubleshooting, and figuring out how to assemble everything on the boat to complete some in-water tests.

In order to understand why the morphology of the head of the canyon changes, we have to sample at very high frequencies. Does the head of the canyon affect sand transport in the Monterey Bay? Is beach sand lost to the canyon forever? Can sand transport patterns explain canyon head changes?

We hope that our expedition will help us better understand how our coast changes and how it will be impacted by future changes to our climate. With so much of the population living near the coast this will be especially important. We hope that our work and instruments will give us the eyes we need to bring the Monterey Canyon out of obscurity and allow the world the opportunity to appreciate this truly spectacular and important feature.


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