Nautilus
Credit: Ocean Exploration Trust

There aren't too many private ships in the modern world as tech-laden as the 'Nautilus,' which fittingly borrowed the name of the mythical submarine in '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.' This surface ship may not sink beneath the waves, but the 21st-century technologies on board would turn Captain Nemo green with envy.

The 'Nautilus' recently installed a new hull-mounted multibeam echosounder to better map uncharted swaths of seafloor, but the star gadget on board is Hercules, an elevator-size remotely operated vehicle, or ROV. Hercules is often tethered to Argus, its boxy ROV counterpart, and is lowered over the side to scoop up samples or turn its floodlights and high-definition camera on terrain that has never been seen before.

It's the kind of exploratory work that Dr. Robert Ballard has done since discovering the wreck of the 'Titanic' in the mid-1980s. Ballard is the founder and president of the Ocean Exploration Trust, owner of the 'Nautilus.' During the ship's recent Mediterranean cruise, Ballard and crew came across about 50 previously unidentified ancient shipwrecks, among other surprises.

"We target places that are unexplored or poorly understood. From the exploration perspective, those are the places that we want to go," says Katy Croff Bell, vice president of the OET and a chief scientist on the 'Nautilus,' which is now charting a course through the Caribbean – as anyone can see thanks to the streaming video on the boat's website. Anyone in the world can tune into the expedition at any time to see what Hercules and the mother ship are doig. A designated crew member even fields questions, in real time, around the clock.

"It's not only a lot of fun, it makes it so much more meaningful," Bell says. "To hear from people, to get their feedback, to have them tuning in and participating with you, watching with you. It creates this global community of exploration. It's really an incredible experience."