Live From the Tropics, It's an Ocean Network

New underwater observatory monitors marine ecosystem off Panama


With a click of his computer mouse, Scott Gallager was swimming with the fishes off the west coast of Panama. Virtual reality? Well, the fish, corals, and currents are real; Gallager, however, is virtually there, connected by an electro-optical cable back to shore and via the Internet to his office at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

In January 2006, Gallager, a WHOI biologist, led a dive team that installed this cabled observatory off the island of Canales de Tierra. It’s the latest in a series of what he calls “underwater laboratories” that can monitor marine ecosystems over long periods and transmit live images and data back to scientists.

The new observatory gives scientists “tele-presence,” he said. A 0.8-mile (1.3-kilometer) cable runs power and data between a shore-based facility (the Liquid Jungle Laboratory) and a node 50 feet (15 meters) below the sea surface. Plugged into the node are sensors to continuously measure the temperature, salinity, pH, and turbidity of the water, as well as currents, chlorophyll, oxygen, and light levels. The observatory also has a pan-and-tilt camera.

Together, the sensors give scientists unprecedented ability to observe and begin to unravel all the factors that combine to sustain the ecosystem—how fresh water, plant detritus, sediments, chemicals, and other materials run off the coast; how they mix into the sea, increase turbidity, change the penetration of light, and add nutrients; how all these influence marine life, from the microscopic plants at the base of the food chain to the corals and fish; and how these change after storms and over seasons.

To launch the project with a tight budget, Gallager, WHOI engineers Andy Girard and Steve Lerner, and research assistant Emily Miller frugally used cable left over from previous WHOI projects. “It’s old, but heavy and tough,” Gallager said. “We put it to good use.”

The observatory can be expanded with more instruments, more nodes, and cable extensions. Gallager also envisions wiring the jungle floor, the tree canopy, and nearby mangrove swamps with sensors so that scientists can observe interactions between terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

And the observatory provides tele-presence not only to scientists. Gallager hopes classrooms around the world will click onto the observatory’s website, “invoking the scientific method, designing experiments, and critically analyzing real-time data.”

The LJL observatory, funded by the WHOI Ocean Life Institute, is the first in tropical waters. WHOI operates the Martha’s Vineyard Coastal Observatory in temperate waters. Gallager and Vernon Asper of the University of Southern Mississippi are gearing up to install the National Science Foundation-funded Polar Remote Interactive Marine Observatory (PRIMO) off Antarctica, which will be the first cabled observatory in Antarctic waters.