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Dropcams Probe Ocean for Darkest Secrets

Unmanned deep-sea technology is allowing researchers to gain insight on bioluminescence and climate change.

Picture of Brennan Phillips and Brad Henning recovering drop cam

National Geographic Explorer Brennan Phillips (left) and National Geographic Remote Imaging Engineer Brad Henning recover a dropcam from its mission to research deep-sea hydrothermal activity. Phillips was the leader of the Kavachi Volcano Expedition in the Solomon Islands in January 2015.

Photograph by Brennan Phillips

Even with acidification, the curse of plastic pollution, and overfishing, there are still significant but very remote parts of the ocean that remain relatively untouched by human impact. The Pristine Seas project supported by the National Geographic Society is racing to set aside and conserve these special places as marine sanctuaries. The Society’s marine explorers, researchers, and conservationists are meanwhile developing and deploying technology as cool as anything humans have made to probe the mysteries of space.

It’s “only” approximately 11 kilometers (seven miles) to the bottom of the deepest part of the ocean, a place visited by three people who survived to return and tell about it: Jacques Piccard, a Swiss engineer, and Don Walsh, a U.S. Navy captain, who dropped down in 1960; and James Cameron, a filmmaker and National Geographic explorer-in-residence, who descended in 2012. Both expeditions required sophisticated and expensive diving vehicles capable of withstanding pressure that would crush a regular submarine. No wonder researchers have developed unmanned probes—technologies like Dropcam and Driftcam—to explore the ocean deep.

William F. Gilly has been studying the Humboldt squid in the southern half of the Gulf of California for a quarter of a century. A star of National Geographic television and magazine coverage, the squid can dive deep into the ocean to feed, even at the depths of the hostile oxygen-minimum-zone environment. Gilly has observed behavior of this amazing squid with two video platforms developed by the Society’s engineers: the Crittercam (attached to the body of a squid), and the Dropcam (glass spheres containing lights and cameras designed to descend to the bottom, film, and return to the surface.)

Gilly also works off the Sea Bird, a passenger cruise ship operated by the Lindblad-National Geographic travel partnership, which he uses as a platform for long-term monitoring of water properties at various depths, measuring temperature, salinity, and oxygen levels. The changes he records may give valuable insights into how climate change is impacting the oceans, information that may be critical to the management of both fisheries and the Pristine Seas conservation areas.

Picture of giant Queensland grouper

Schools of giant Queensland grouper attack a lead weight used to keep a deep-sea dropcam pointing downward. The voracious predators, which can grow to more than six feet in length, were filmed by the dropcam being used to research hydrothermal activity off the Solomon Islands.

Photograph by Brennan Phillips/National Geographic

Brennan Phillips, a National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants Program explorer, used Dropcams to probe what’s happening in and around an undersea volcano off the Solomon Islands. His team’s biggest surprise was the discovery of lots of hammerheads and silky sharks, prompting them to name the place “Sharkcano.” (Related story: Sleeper Shark Pops Up in Unexpected Place).

Now Brennan and the National Geographic engineering team are working on a new version of the Dropcam: the Driftcam, a platform they hope will enable the filming of bioluminescence at what he calls the mid-level of the ocean, a place not very well studied. “There could be a lot of animals that light up in this part of the world. But no matter what we find, it’s certain that we will see something cool,” he says.

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