A ship dedicated for ocean exploration passed its first tests off the coast of Washington this fall. Technology on board will let the public see real-time images of the ocean once the boat starts its missions.

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The crew aboard a new research ship didn’t expect to find an underwater volcano this fall off the coast of Washington.

Maps from previous missions showed only a bump on the seafloor about 200 miles west of Grays Harbor. But the contours of a large volcano emerged as sonar mapped the ocean floor more than 10,000 feet below the surface.

“It turns out we had this great volcano in the spot we were testing,” said Jeremy Weirich, the ship’s operations officer.

Okeanos Explorer, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ship commissioned in August, just returned to Pier 66 in Seattle after its trial run off the Washington coast. Crew members said they were surprised at the mapping program’s extraordinary detail.

Collecting ocean images is one part of the ship’s mission. Despite ongoing research, NOAA scientists say close to 95 percent of the ocean remains unexplored. That means a world of underwater volcanoes, deep-dwelling organisms and shipwrecks hasn’t been seen by humans.

But understanding the sea goes beyond mere curiosity, experts say. The ocean helps to regulate the Earth’s temperature and provides oxygen needed for life.

“There’s no shortage of need to understand the oceans,” said Craig Russell, program coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research.

Okeanos Explorer is the first U.S. government ship devoted solely to exploring the ocean for scientific discovery. A satellite dish on board will transmit real-time images over the Internet to viewers in classrooms, museums and homes.

“The idea is to bring people on shore aboard the ship via modern technology,” Russell said.

The ocean’s floor hasn’t been mapped in great detail along much of Washington’s coast, making it a worthwhile place to test the sonar technology, Weirich said. The high-resolution sonar mapped each depth as a different color, showing a dynamic ocean floor with deep ridges and canyons.

“There are still discoveries to be made off the coast of Seattle,” Weirich said.

The Navy has used the ship since 1988 for sonar surveillance before it was decommissioned and transferred about four years ago to NOAA for exploration. The Navy put $18 million into preparing the ship, and NOAA contributed an another $5 million, officials said. The ship now has lab space, a control room with two dozen high-definition screens, and three underwater robots that can be deployed to explore the sea.

Okeanos Explorer has used Seattle as a temporary home base while being refitted. The ship will be docked at Pier 66 along Seattle’s waterfront for the winter, and its underwater-robot technology will be tested off the West Coast in the spring. The ship will home-port in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay.

NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research was created less than a decade ago to share discoveries with educators, scientists and the public. The ship likely will spend about 240 days at sea each year mapping the ocean, collecting underwater images and traveling between missions.

Technology aboard the ship lets scientists map parts of the deep sea and look for interesting creatures and new habitats. If something catches their eye, scientists can return on a separate trip and send down robots to collect high-definition video or take samples.

Most of the experts involved with the ship won’t actually be on board while it’s out exploring. A communication system with real-time images allows scientists and experts on shore to direct the ship’s crew while at sea.

Seattle has one of the command centers, while the other four are on the East Coast.

Further field tests for the Okeanos Explorer next year on the West Coast will involve experts at the onshore command centers. The public can watch the ship’s progress online when it embarks on its maiden voyage in 2010.

Michelle Ma: 206-464-2303 or mma@seattletimes.com