#04 2023

From frame to footage: Investigating cost-effective solutions for exploring the deep sea

By JJ Forgus, Instrument Technician, SAEON Egagasini Node

Gaining access to the deep sea has always been one of the biggest challenges marine researchers have faced while trying to explore the ocean floor. Technical expertise using deep-sea research instrumentation is often scarce, equipment is expensive, and vessels equipped to handle the specialised demands of offshore marine benthic research are never easy to come by. 

It was with these challenges in mind that the Azores Deep Sea Research team based at the Instituto do Mar University of the Azores, an iAtlantic partner, designed and created the Azor drift-cam.

Front and side views of the main body of the Azor drift-cam including all components mounted on a steel frame

SAEON instrument technician JJ Forgus learned how to build, operate and troubleshoot the Azor drift-cam

The camera system was designed to be an ‘off-the-shelf’, affordable and easy-to-use underwater video system for the rapid survey of benthic habitats to depths of 1 000 metres. The Azores team have been using the system to map the marine environment around the Azores since 2019 and published an open access manuscript about the camera system in 2021 (https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/2041-210X.13617). Having proved its effectiveness, they then reached out to South Atlantic partners and fellows through the iAtlantic project to provide a training workshop on how to build, operate and troubleshoot the Azor drift-cam.

Being the newly appointed instrument technician for the SAEON Egagasini Node’s Biodiversity Hub, it was with growing excitement that I listened to Dr Lara Atkinson’s advice to apply to attend the workshop. A few days after submitting my application, workshop invitations were sent and preparations to attend began… success!

It is worth mentioning that the month (and a bit) leading up to the workshop included a safety at sea course, preparation for my first research cruise as a SAEON technician as well as passport and visa applications. Fortunately, plenty of advice and administrative support were provided. Eventually, two missed and three successful flights later, Mari-Lise Franken (PhD student at the University of Cape Town) and I arrived safely in Horta, Azores where the workshop was to be held, albeit a day late.

‘Frame-to-footage’ rundown 

Despite the initial panic caused by arriving a day later than intended, we were pleased to discover that the Azores workshop team were incredibly accommodating and had swiftly restructured the workshop so that those arriving late would not miss a thing. All in all, 12 iAtlantic participants hailing from South Africa, Brazil and the United Kingdom were introduced to the Azor drift-cam system. We were given a breakdown of its development process, guiding principles, performance since its first deployment, general cost of components and issues the team had faced while exploring the deep-sea benthic habitats around the islands of the Azores.

One of the guiding principles behind the system that the Azores team wanted to emphasise, was that it did not require technical expertise to construct, operate and maintain. To this end, after the initial introduction to the system concluded, the next two days were focused solely on constructing functioning replicas of the system. What the participants were not aware of was the fact that this would entail being provided with an empty steel frame, a table of components, a box of tools and an instruction manual.

What followed were two intense days of bolting, screwing, cutting, soldering and connecting, all under the guidance of the Azores team that developed the system. The result? Two fully functioning Azor drift-cam replica systems, ready for deployment and built by researchers, postgraduate students and technicians that had only seen the camera for the first time the morning prior.

Carlos Dominguez-Carrió (Azor Deep Sea Research Team) running through various components of the Azor drift-cam system and explaining their functionality with deconstructed components and frame

JJ Forgus (SAEON) and Cayley Cammell (University of the Western Cape) removing cameras from the drift-cam after successful deployment.

Dr Telmo Morato showing participants the intended area for the drift-cam deployment

The final day of the workshop was focused on seeing the system in action. A local wildlife-watching vessel was chartered (to further illustrate the lack of need for an expensive, specially built vessel for deployment), the systems loaded on board and a few deployments conducted allowing the participants to get a proper feel for using the drift-cam at sea.

After returning to port and heading back to the lecture room at the Escola do Mar dos Açores facilities (where the workshop was being held), the day concluded with instructions on how the team usually extracts video footage and data from the devices on the camera system.

JJ Forgus (SAEON) doing final checks on his group’s replica Azor drift-cam system before checking the live-view footage

Successful drift-cam deployment

In addition to the hard work that the Azores team had put in to give the participants the ‘frame-to-footage’ rundown on their camera system, the end of every workshop day was complemented with activities that included a tour of both the Escola do Mar facilities and University of the Azores campus in Horta as well as a visit to the local Festival Maravilha (an annual music, dance and food festival), which conveniently overlapped with the dates of the workshop (suspiciously good planning by the workshop organisers!).

The holistic nature of the workshop, along with the additional activities happening in the city, made the entire trip a truly valuable and unforgettable experience that imparted knowledge and know-how that has the potential to benefit our South Atlantic deep-sea researchers immensely. South African researchers are certainly exploring options to build our own Azor drift-cam as soon as possible.

Special thanks to Simone Louw (SAEON), Dr Lara Atkinson (SAEON), Mari-Lise Franken (UCT) and Dr Lisa Skein (SANBI) for the support and advice they provided.