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Deepest Underwater Camera records unique marine life

The world’s first deep sea Web cam was sunk into the blackness of Monterey Bay Canyon this year, allowing scientists – and anyone with Internet access – to watch streaming video of an ocean floor habitat rarely explored.

The Eye in the Sea camera, developed with the help of Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, beams back grainy film of ethereal-looking crabs, bulbous black-eyed fish and sea pens swaying in a breezy underwater current 3,230-feet below the ocean’s surface.

But the camera is unique not just for its Web abilities. Designed in a way to be more unobtrusive than previous technology, it aims to give a truer picture of undersea life – a reality show of sorts broadcast live from the ocean floor. Instead of a noisy and brightly-lit submersible vehicle to gather data, the stationary camera is silent, plugged into a one-of-its-kind giant underwater extension cord developed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. It also uses a specialized red light that is undetectable by sea life.

An earlier version of the camera was battery powered, limiting its ocean forays to less than a week. With the newly developed power source, it can stay submerged for months at a time.

“This offers researchers the opportunity to capture on video images of deep sea organisms that are either too smart or too shy to hang around when the noise and lights of undersea vehicles cut through the silence and darkness of the deep,” said Harbor Branch researcher Lee Frey, who was the lead engineer for the camera. “For science, the value of this lies in discovering new species and observing known organisms whose behaviors are not precipitated or influenced by the human and unaccustomed presence in the environment.”

The camera was first deployed Jan. 21 and ran a continuous stream of video for a month before experiencing technical difficulties that restrict it to running for about five hours per day.

Researchers hope to bring the camera up for repair soon and believe part of the problem could be the crushing pressure at that depth.

While the atmospheric pressure at sea level is about 14.7 pounds per square inch, or psi, the camera is experiencing a psi of about 1,300.

“The environment at this depth is very harsh and it’s an ocean realm that science has relatively little information about,” said Scott Kathey, spokesman for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

The camera’s development began in 2000 at Harbor Branch with Frey and principal investigator Edith Widder, who earned a National Science Foundation grant for the project.

In 2005, Widder took the project with her when she became president and senior scientist for the Fort Pierce-based Ocean Research and Conservation Association. Widder continued to contract work with Harbor Branch and Frey.

Widder estimates the camera’s cost at about $600,000.

“This is giving us the opportunity to see what normal behavior is and to possibly see things that nobody has ever seen,” Widder said.

Widder acknowledges some of the scenes captured by the camera may not be very interesting to the average viewer.

Fish often appear immobilized while flecks of seaweed and other ocean organisms whiz by them.

With a limited food supply at that depth, Widder said fish conserve energy by remaining stationary for long periods of time.

“It’s like watching paint dry for most people, but it’s pretty remarkable for a scientist,” said Widder, who also designed a unique device that mimics the bioluminescence of jellyfish to lure predators to the camera.

For more of a show, she said people should begin watching the live Web stream next month when she hopes to sink the carcass of a whale or other animal near the camera to attract even more sea life.

“This is just too cool not to share with the rest of the world,” Widder said. “A lot of people don’t realize how much life is down there.”


One response

  1. Thanks for this great blog.

    March 29, 2010 at 9:10 am