The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute is developing a state-of-the-art underwater camera

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MOSS LANDING – A new state-of-the-art underwater camera, developed by scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, will paint a brighter and more detailed picture of underwater life.

The studio-grade camera, which captures images in ultra-high definition 4K video, will help researchers better document the creatures and rock formations that lie beneath the ocean’s surface.

A 4K image capture of a seabed scene including sablefish (Anoplopomafimbria, left), corals and sponges. (Contributed photo – © 2021 MBARI)

“There are colors, textures, animals that kind of faded into the background in the past that we will now be able to visualize,” said Lonny Lundsten, the institute’s senior research technician. “He has so much potential.”

Working with DeepSea Power & Light, scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute developed the technology, which will be used to capture images of rare jellies, neon corals and hydrothermal vents. The camera technology is similar to that used in the Olympics, said MBARI electrical engineer Paul Roberts, which tracks skiers hurtling down mountain peaks at 90 mph and ice skaters whirling and launching themselves through the air.

“When there’s a moment in a sports game that you absolutely have to catch because it’s only going to happen once… I think it’s analogous to some of the things we do, where you can see an animal very briefly and you gotta get a really good shot of this one,” Roberts said.

MBARI Electrical Engineer Paul Roberts prepares the alignment test setup during final assembly and calibration of the MxD SeaCam 4K camera optics at MBARI’s facility in Moss Landing, California. (Contributed photo – Mark Chaffey © 2021 MBARI)

Three years in the making, the MxD SeaCam is encased in a special titanium housing that protects the delicate camera components from damage caused by the high pressures encountered on the high seas. Taking a ride on a remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, it can dive to depths of over 13,000 feet below the ocean surface and capture continuous video for 12 hours. So far, the camera has accompanied an ROV on 19 MBARI missions, ranging from day trips to week-long expeditions at sea.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than 80% of the world’s oceans remain unexplored. Using the MxD SeaCam, researchers have already documented parasitic organisms not seen in the past, Lundsten said.

“We see the surface of jellies and other animals that we couldn’t see before – it would just be no definition, no outline – and now all of a sudden we see all these little bumps and ripples on the surface, just textures that we haven’t seen in the past,” Lundsten said.

The images and video captured by the camera will become part of a larger database that MBARI researchers have compiled over 35 years, which contains 8.5 million observations of the world’s oceans.

Prior to 2021, dive footage was captured in high definition. The 4K ultra HD resolution and powerful zoom capabilities of the MxD SeaCam allow scientists to more accurately track creatures and geological features, such as the Monterey Undersea Canyon, in the Pacific and beyond.

In November, an ROV equipped with the camera captured an elusive giant ghost jelly. The invertebrate has a 3-foot-wide body and arms that span 33 feet, presenting a puzzle to researchers studying jelly. Video imagery is vitally important to understanding these creatures, Roberts said.

“It is a difficult environment for humans to access. Even when you step into a vehicle, you don’t always have a good view of what’s in there due to the stresses on the mechanical systems,” Roberts said. “The camera gives you the ability to be almost closer to being there in person. You see more of the colors, resolution, and dynamic range than you would see with your eyes.”

While the camera will regularly be used for scientific missions, it will also be used to take the public diving, from the comfort of a couch or to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Lundsten anticipates that the MxD SeaCam images will be shown on BBC programs and used in aquarium displays.

This science communication, as climate change impacts the seas, is equally important to the research mission, he said.

“Incredible images really help tell the story of the deep sea and convey both its beauty and its fragility,” Lundsten said.

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