An underwater eye: Marine Institute aims to shine light on ocean mysteries

Nfld. & Labrador

A new cabled observatory near Holyrood is the first of its kind on the east coast of Canada. Learn more about what the Marine Institute hopes to discover.

Oceans Network Canada staff work on the observatory component before deployment. Submitted by Marine Institute

Though Newfoundland may be surrounded — and in many ways is sustained — by the ocean, there's a lot going on beneath the waves that still remains a mystery.

Now, researchers at the Marine Institute have a new way of gathering information about our province's aquatic environments, though a new ocean observatory, deep under the water near Holyrood.

The first-of-its-kind cabled observatory on Canada's east coast will collect and relay data through fibre optic cables, with the aim of reversing the cycle of decline in ocean health, and perhaps improving the sustainable development of its resources.

The Marine Institute partnered with Oceans Network Canada, the University of Victoria initiative in British Columbia, which has been operating cabled observatories since 2006.

"Their most famous is the VENUS and NEPTUNE networks on the west coast of Canada," said Paul Brett, the head of the school of Ocean Technology at the Marine Institute.

"This is the first cabled observatory on the east coast of Canada, so we partnered with them a number of years ago on our mid-ocean buoys, but now in a cabled observatory."

Observatory provides new insights for researchers

The new cabled observatory sits at a depth of 85 meters, about 4.5 kilometres from MI's marine base in Holyrood. Brett said the structure itself is about the size of a small car, and is connected through a series of fibre optic and power cables.

The observatory will quickly relay data to researchers through fibre optic cables. Submitted by Marine Institute

"It has a number of sensors onboard: cameras, CTDs, acoustic sensors for passive acoustic listening, and active acoustics for communicating with subsea vehicles or subsea structures."

As the east coast's flagship cabled observatory, Brett said their main focus is going to be taking measurements through the observatory's various instruments and sensors, to gauge things like ocean salinity, temperature, currents, and the visible spectrum of fluorescence.

"This observatory is actually an extension of the things that we've been doing around technology development," said Brett. "So it's a platform to test new sensors, to do science work."

Brett said the goals of the new observatory are multifaceted, but with several main functions.

"Really, it's three phases: It has a technology development component, it has an ocean monitoring component—so this will be a long standing, uninterrupted dataset for oceanographic conditions—and also it's a great thing for outreach."

After all, Brett said, who isn't curious about what's happening that far down?

"So you think about youth, and people young at heart, who want to understand some of the mysteries of the ocean," he said.

Mysteries of the ocean to explore

What may draw that public intrigue most of all isn't only the new data which researchers will be collecting, but also what the observatory's cameras may capture of the ocean floor.

"It has a camera that captures five minutes of video every hour to look at the sub-sea critters and animals and see how they're behaving," he said.

The observatory was installed 85 metres below the surface, over about four kilometres from the Marine Institute’s base in Holyrood. Submitted by Marine Institute

According to Brett, part of the excitement of this new project, and this kind of science in general, involves the magnitude of how many mysteries there are to discover in the sub-sea.

"I was watching last night and there were some great brittle stars there, and there's snow crab, and toad crab, and lots of small phytoplankton that you can see drifting in and out of the scene," Brett said.

"What I find very fascinating is you're always wondering what's just beyond the camera; what's the mystery that lies just beneath our watch, coming into view next?"

With files from Jane Adey

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