Skip to content

Advances in Underwater Imaging Provide Scientists With New Eyes in an Amazing Undersea World

December 12, 1997

A new suite of deep-sea camera systems, including a prototype high definition color television camera, has captured some unprecedented images of exotic life forms living in total darkness and freezing temperatures on the seafloor. The cameras, successfully used on a just-concluded research cruise off the Mexican coast in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, provide scientists with heretofore unattainable views of the seafloor where new ocean crust is formed and of the unique animals which inhabit one of the most extreme environments of earth. Analysis of the recently collected images in the weeks and months ahead may reveal new life forms, or clues to important questions about how these animals survive and reproduce in conditions that could not support human life but may be linked to life on other planets.

The imaging technology was developed at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts and was used aboard the Institution-operated submersible Alvin and its support vessel Atlantis, which are working near 9¡ North on the East Pacific Rise. The recent cruise, funded by the National Science Foundation, was headed by Dr. Richard Lutz of Rutgers University. Other participants aboard Research Vessel Atlantis represented Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, University of New Hampshire, University of Washington, University of Delaware, the University of Hawaii, the National Geographic Society, and The Discovery Channel.

The cameras included a high resolution broadcast quality television camera, a prototype high definition color camera, and a high magnification video system, which gives a crystal clear, close-up view as if the subjects were under a high power microscope. The prototype high definition camera, the first ever used in the deep sea, was developed in conjunction with the Sony Corporation, with lens supplied by Fujinon. The camera is the only one of its kind currently in the United States.

While a traditional broadcast television camera has a resolution of 500 x 800 pixels, the new high definition camera has a resolution more than twice that at 1000 x 2000 pixels. The video resolution is equivalent to 35 mm motion picture film, and quality prints can be produced from video suitable for publication. High definition television, which gives a much clearer, more detailed picture than standard television, is the new industry standard and will become increasingly more common in the years ahead as television sets are developed using this advanced technology.

“The high definition camera is a prototype, and what we saw on our recent cruise has far exceeded our expectations,” Research Specialist William Lange of WHOI said. “We are extremely excited about both the quality of the images we have just collected and what this technology will enable scientists to do in terms of their ability to analyze the data they are collecting, which in this case is images. It gives them an incredibly powerful tool to study the seafloor and what lives there, or in the water above it, at a level of detail they have not had before. Who knows what we all will now be able to see, and learn.”

The resolution of the new camera systems will enable engineers to develop new visualization techniques such as wide screen projection, simulators, and enhanced reality experiences.

“It sounds ironic to say this in an age of men on the moon and robots exploring distant planets, but we are truly just entering the Lewis and Clark phase of exploration of the largest unknown region on this planet – the oceans,” said Dr. David Gallo, a geologist and Director of Special Projects at WHOI. “This technology will not only enable scientists to get far more information from their data than ever before and to ask more questions, but it will also enable the public to see what lies out there under the surface. We are looking at using this technology and sharing these images with the public in exhibits at museums, science centers, aquaria, and elsewhere around the country and beyond, as well as in television programs and in educational projects.”

Video imagery from the recent cruise is planned for use on an upcoming Discovery Channel program on the deep-sea hydrothermal vents, expected to be broadcast next year. WHOI has had a long history of advances in underwater photography dating back to World War II, when Institution scientists and engineers developed the first deep-sea cameras.

For additional information, contact:
Shelley Lauzon, Senior News Officer
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, MA, 02543
FAX: 508-457-2180