installing ocean observatory off Panama

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WHOI engineer Andy Girard (left) and biologist Scott Gallager installed a cabled underwater observatory off the west coast of Panama at the Liquid Jungle Laboratory in January 2006. (Photo by Emily Miller, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Ocean observatory off Panama

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The Panama Liquid Jungle Lab (LJL)Underwater Tropical Observatory (PLUTO) is located on the seafloor 60 feet (18 meters) deep off Pacora Island in Panama (red dot). An electro-optical cable (black line)?0.68-inches thick and 0.8 miles (1.3 kilomers) long?links the observatory to LJL (green dot), where data from under the sea is relayed via the Internet. (Courtesy of Scott Gallager, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

coastal ocean ecosystem

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The underwater observatory gives scientists the ability to observe and begin to unravel all the factors that combine to sustain the oceanic ecosystem?how fresh water, plant detritus, sediments, chemical, and other materials run off the coasts; how they mix into the sea, increase turbidity, change the penetration of light, and add nutrients; how all these influence marine life, from microscoic plants to corals and fish; and how these change after storms and over seasons.
(Courtesy of Scott Gallager, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

WebCam from Panama ocean observatory

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A WebCam on the observatory on the seafloor off Panama transmits images via the Internet. See what's happening at http://4dgeo.whoi.edu/panama. (Courtesy of Scott Gallager, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

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WHOI Engineering Assistant Andy Girard (tan pants) and workers lay out a 1-mile (1.5-kilometer) electro-optical cable at the Liquid Jungle Lab in Panama to deploy an underwater observatory. The cable provides power and data communications between observatory and laboratory, and data are relayed via the Internet. (Photo by Peggy Hamner, UCLA)

Related Links

Panama LJL Underwater Tropical Observatory (PLUTO)Liquid Jungle LabScience in the Liquid Jungle LabSensors to Make Sense of the Sea
from Oceanus magazineMartha's Vineyard Coastal Observatory (MVCO)Polar Remote Interactive Marine Observatory (PRIMO)The WHOI Ocean Life Institute

Live From the Tropics, It's an Ocean Network

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.