You don’t have to get your feet wet to see what’s happening under the water’s surface thanks to a variety of new, lightweight hi-definition cameras that bring everything from crabs to crawfish to your laptop or TV.
The affordable technology shows species behavior like never before and it turns out, it’s also serious science.
Oregon Dept of Fish and Wildlife Marine Biologists Bob Hannah and Matt Blume created the new “video lander;” an easy to use and inexpensive tool that’s giving scientists a new look into Oregon’s silent and secret underwater world.
“We started out by drawing on a piece of paper,” noted Hannah with a chuckle. “We knew we had to keep all the sensitive stuff inside the frame so it's all somewhat protected – then we evaluated it in the field.
They couldn’t afford to buy an expensive remote operated submersible that can cost more than a hundred thousand dollars, so they built the 65-pound video lander for less than ten thousand dollars. It's become an affordable option that surveys the ocean floor just as well as more expensive technology.
The aluminum lander’s design also allows it to be deployed in the rugged, rocky ocean bottom that exists off Oregon's shoreline.
Hannah said that the video lander can be easily dropped from a small boat just like a fisherman might drop a crab pot over the side: “That’s one of the neat things about our device: we can go out on very short notice for a survey.”
The underwater camera provides clear looks at amazing fish that live at places like Stone Wall Bank, a rocky reel that's located 15 miles west of Newport. “It shows us what kind of fish live there, what sizes they are, what kind of micro-habitats they prefer. Really, it’s the basic ocean ecology," said Hannah.
Learning about ocean ’ecology’ has been critical since the establishment of Oregon’s Marine Reserve Program in 2009.
Oregon has five reserves that reach from Cape Falcon near Cannon Beach south to the Port Orford area. The reserves are akin to fish refuges where no angling is allowed. So, the challenge for scientists has been finding a non-lethal way of getting a first-hand look at the fish that live there.
The lander’s digital hi-definition camera does a fine job of showing the fish species – the camera is mounted in a watertight case and powered by a nickel-cadmium battery for up to four hours.
A bag filled with chopped herring hangs off a steel rod four feet in front of the camera and serves as bait to draw in the fish for close ups.
“We can get into the areas that have a whole lot of fish, especially some of the schooling species, like canary rockfish – and they will fill up the scene.” said Hannah. “It’s also neat to see the big halibut and we were even visited by a sea lion once. He came down, looked at the camera and then turned and left.”
Marine managers say more video landers are on the way that will provide spectacular views of Oregon’s remarkable ocean life. Up next - stereo cameras for a three-dimensional look to help the scientist determine the fish’s size. Hannah said they hope to deploy the new cameras next spring.