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Underwater robots give new perspective on the ocean

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Imagine being the first to discover a ship wreck or a new species at the bottom of the sea. Well, now you can do that with a click of your mouse and a good internet connection.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has expeditions that broadcast "live" from the depths. Much of the work is done at a command center in Silver Spring, Maryland.

From this non-descript command center - scientists are leading a large underwater expedition - and giving the public a front row seat.  

CBS News was invited to watch a NOAA mission into the Gulf of Mexico. On this day, marine archaeologists wanted to investigate a large object on the sea floor.

Screens show "live" images from a high definition camera on an undersea robot. It was launched from the "Okeanos Explorer" about 200 miles off the Texas coast.

The underwater discovery during our visit was definitely not man made.

Catherine Marzia, an NOAA ecologist says, "Everybody's been surprised when we saw it  - we expected it to be a shipwreck and here we saw what looked like a beautiful flower on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico."

They call it an asphalt volcano...possibly formed from tar blossoming out of the sea floor. A geological surprise.

The live stream sent images to scientists and ocean lovers all over the country. During the 3 week mission cameras captured natural wonders - like this dumbo octopus, and historic treasures - including a cluster of shipwrecks from the early 1800's.

“The ocean is critically important to understand and yet it's 95 percent unexplored,” says Fred Gorell, a public affairs official with NOAA. “And so we're out there exploring.”

It's also a treat for the eyes. Everything from squat lobsters to sea cucumbers to thrill both scientists and virtual explorers everywhere.

The Okeanos is the only federal program systematically exploring the unknown ocean. A new expedition begins this fall. You can log-on and join in at www.oceanexplorer.noaa.gov

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