SAN ANTONIO — San Antonio native, Caitlin Bailey will climb aboard the NOAA Okeanos Explorer on July 6 where she will be working as a Wildlife Filmmaker and Ocean Explorer through August 31.
This week she will set sail to explore the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and Azores Plateau exploring 500 - 6,000 meters below the ocean to help a team gather footage of never before seen landmarks and deep sea creatures.
This will be Caitlin's 19th and 20th expeditions where she will be living on the Okeanos Explorer for the next two months.
I was able to speak with Caitlin about her ocean adventures and how growing up in San Antonio led her to a desire of seeking a career in wildlife filmmaking.
Tell me what your job is because it’s really cool.
I am a Wildlife Filmmaker and Ocean Explorer. I mostly contract with the Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration, it’s a non-profit based out of Connecticut and we work with NOAA ocean exploration. We work on a NOAA ship called Okeanos Explorer. We are the only government vessel who’s mission is to explore the ocean.
We send a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) down between 500 meters and 6,000 meters or 1600 feet and 19,600 feet! And then we livestream video to the internet so anybody worldwide can watch us live from the bottom of the ocean.
We’re not inside these ROV’s we are actually controlling them from the ship.
Wow! So this upcoming expedition is called Voyage to the Ridge. What will you be doing?
Our goal is to look at some deep sea coral and sponge communities. Potentially hypothermal vents and looking at some potential geo-hazards. Because there are a lot of earthquakes in this area it’s important to know what’s down there. That could potentially help us out if any earthquakes or tsunamis occur.
What's it like to live on a ship?
Ship life is amazing! I love my ship family so much. Sometimes the water is a little bit rough. But it’s all worth it just to be out in the middle of nowhere. You’re days from any land or people. It’s like living in your own exploration world.
One of my superpowers I say is I actually don’t get seasick. Which is really awesome and important and I’m really lucky like that. I also like being out in the wilderness and being away from technology and the city.
There’s definitely pros and cons to working at sea. It’s adventurous we find new species basically on almost every expedition.
I love seeing new places but I also miss home and things going on. My dog. I still haven’t been to fiesta in a long time because I’m usually at sea during April. So things like that but you know it’s a balance just like with anything in life. But I still feel very lucky that I get to explore the ocean and help uncover some mysteries that our planet still holds.
What has been your favorite thing of all the places you’ve explored?
I’ve been working with NOAA’s ship Okeanos Explorer since 2016. We’ve been all over the Pacific to Hawaii, Guam, Saipan, Marinas, Samoas and America Samoa, Gulf of Mexico, and on the East Coast too.
My favorite place so far is the musician’s seamounts, which are north of Hawaii. But they’re in non-American waters. These seamounts, like underwater mountains are in the high-seas so nobody “owns them” per se. They are full of gorgeous corals gardens. It’s absolutely breath-taking. The corals there are hundreds of years old.
You love sea lions. What was it like to swim and film with them?
Outside of the Okeanos I’ve been to the Arctic on United States Coast Guard ship. We explored the Chukchi borderlands back in 2016. Encountered polar bears, got stuck in some ice for about three days, which was really fun. And then in February 2020 I went to Antarctica. Because one of my lifegoals was to film leopard seals underwater and I actually got to do that.
It was magical and amazing. It's one of my favorite animals in the world and it was humbling and honoring to get to film and swim with this apex predator.
They were very curious. It swam with us for about an hour and half. I actually lost feeling in two fingers for a few months because that water was so cold and my grip on my camera was so strong. But it was worth it.
This leopard seal was so curious it could see itself in my dome so it started to actually mouth in my camera, which was kind of what I wanted it to do. So that was pretty awesome! I loved it and would gladly go back to film more.
Why did you choose this career?
I’ve always known that I wanted to work with animals I just didn’t know in what capacity. I got a Bachelor’s of Science in Animal Biology with the intent of studying animal behavior however I discovered that as much as I love science I don’t like doing science. But I still wanted to be part of the scientific community. So instead I decided to pursue science filmmaking so I can be this mediator between scientists and the public.
When I was in graduate school my professor was already working on the Okeanos so I got super lucky that she also brought me on board. So I’m based in San Antonio but I’m gone for about four to six months of the year.
What's the deep really like?
And to explore and figure out what’s down there. A lot people think that the deep sea is barren and it’s a wasteland but it really isn’t. There are areas full of life and colors and different species, it’s amazing. Oh man. We’ve seen so many incredible things. We’ve seen in the Marianas these hydrothermal vents with a whole bunch of shrimp and crabs and different life on them too. And hopefully we will see some of that this summer because then that will give us more clues about how these animals live in these extremely chemo-synthetic areas.
Why is the work you do on the Okeanos Explorer important?
Our ship is gathering baseline data. This means that we're the first eyes on an area. And sometimes we’re the only eyes ever to see certain features. So we’re providing data both visual data and mapping data for scientists to basically develop new questions. We’re more of a question generator because we are exploration. So we are just trying to figure out what's down there because we can’t properly regulate or protect what's in the deep seas until we know what’s there. Humans didn’t even know that there was life down there until pretty recently. I think humans have this innate need and curiosity to explore our world so this ship fulfills that need to explore.
This is cliché but people say we know more about mars and the moon then we do about our oceans and it’s true. The water column which is between the surface of the water and the sea floor is the largest habitat on Earth and it’s the least explored as well. I mean so you never know what we're going to find which is probably the best part of it all.
Why should people get involved of taking care of our oceans?
The ocean is what makes Earth so unique and so special. We still haven’t found any other planet quite like ours yet and the ocean is the biggest part of that. Without the ocean we wouldn’t exist. So I think it’s really important to understand it. To go to the beach and stick your leg in it. Be in the water and really connect with it.
It’s incredible to grasp how vast and how large the ocean is but its also incredibly fragile too. The ocean is what has the currents and what brings us different weather. It gives us oxygen and is really the lifeblood of our planet. And even though we can’t see it everyday we are impacted by it every moment of our life.
How has living in San Antonio inspired you to make a career in ocean life?
I was born and raised here in San Antonio and a lot of my interest in the ocean came from SeaWorld and going there a lot. I think I went to SeaWorld camp like five times as a kid. And I was very lucky that my family went to Corpus and Port A at least once a year so I got to experience the ocean first hand. And so those experiences really impacted my love for the ocean and ocean life. And it fueled the flame of my love of wildlife too. Even though San Antonio is about a few hours from the ocean I still always felt connected to it, even here.
You can follow along Caitlin’s most recent expedition on the Okeanos Explorer at their website.