Imagine if you could eavesdrop on creatures at the depths of the Monterey Canyon without using any light or making your presence known. That’s exactly what the Ocean Research & Conservation Association (ORCA) is doing, in concert with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), with the ORCA Eye-in-the-Sea, the world’s first deep-sea web cam. The results are astounding and maybe even a little creepy. The most recent deployment, on August 14, involved placing a harbor seal carcass on the seafloor, where it is being enthusiastically consumed by hagfish and the occasional crab and deep-sea sole. (No seal was harmed for the experiment.) You can view this undersea drama day or night on their live feed.
This amazing camera system, developed by ORCA’s Dr. Edith Widder with support from the National Science Foundation, uses stray photons of biological light, aided by an image intensifier, to create video we can see. Extra illumination is provided by powerful red lights that are invisible to most sea creatures. The goal, according to Dr. Widder, is to “find out what’s happening when no one is looking. We’re being silent witnesses.”
The result is a remarkable flurry of activity. Hagfish (Eptatretus stoutii), also known as slime eels, are known for slithering into dead or dying fishes and eating them from the inside out, using their rasping tongues. In the current live video feed, a seal carcass provides a similarly tempting meal.
Power consumption is a challenge for remote cameras like the ORCA Eye-in-the-Sea, and that’s where MBARI comes in. It developed an undersea cable system, known as the Monterey Accelerated Research System (MARS), which uses 57 kilometers of cable to power the system at a depth of 900 meters, 24 hours a day. The system can also provide data access to scientists all over the world.
Since the system runs 24 hours a day, an additional challenge has been to cull through the vast footage. To help with this, scientists developed an automated event detection system that identifies and highlights activity each time it occurs, greatly simplifying the editing and viewing process.
But at the moment, it’s not hard to see activity from the ORCA Eye-in-the-Sea—thanks to some very busy hagfish.