Into the Deep

Latest update August 29, 2019 Started on July 16, 2018

The Deep Ocean Dropcam, developed by the National Geographic Society Exploration Technology Lab, is a robust and efficient platform for exploring the deep ocean. In order to assess global deep ocean ecosystem health and identify areas in need of protection, we will develop key indicators with metrics such as taxon richness, abundance, and community diversity in the deep ocean. By coupling biological metrics with environmental variables such as depth and habitat, these measures will establish the first global baseline to serve as a standard against which to measure any change in the deep sea.

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We are in preparation for an expedition to the Galapagos with Lindblad Expeditions, MIT Media Lab, and Charles Darwin Foundation to study deep seamounts using Nat Geo Exploration Technology Lab's Deep-ocean Dropcams. This September and October will be an exciting time, and I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the opportunity to explore this special place with an incredible team.

As we are planning the science protocol, I am also pouring over examples of field notebooks for inspiration to shape my own field journal that I will undertake for the trip. The more I think about it - how journals have been used in the past during historical expeditions, and the power of written/spoken word and personal handwriting/drawing in this hyper-tech age - the more I admire the simple practice of keeping a journal to mark the moments of a journey, and as a tool to participate intimately with the natural world.

For this expedition, I am designing a specific practice to use field drawing and contemplation techniques to observe and connect deeply to a place, and share those connections through words and pictures.

One of my resources as I plan the journal, is the book pictured here: "Field Notes on Science and nature" by Michael Canfield, with a forward by E.O. Wilson.

Wilson writes: "If there is a heaven, and I am allowed entrance, I will ask for no more than an endless living world to walk through and explore. I will carry with me an inexhaustible supply of notebooks, from which I can send back reports to the more sedentary spirits (mostly molecular and cell biologists). Along the way I would expect to meet kindred spirits, among whom would be the authors of the essays in this book." (those authors he is referring to our the ones whose journals I have been researching for ideas to structure my own journal for this Galapagos trip, and to offer as a guide for whomever of my fellow scientists would like to join me).

By opening up our capacity for deep observation, as the field journal activities are meant to do, we find that in fact we are in an endless living world to walk through and explore, and that we are surrounded by our kindred spirits on these types of expeditions. Although the supply of notebooks my be finite on this trip due to space consideration, part of my preparation process is to plan to bring just enough for myself and for fellow scientists to join me in this natural history tradition, writing letters to our present and future.

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This year at National Geographic Explorer's Festival in Washington, DC, I was honored to be able to share our Dropcam deep-sea research on a panel "The new era of discovery" (link to video below).

I spoke about my love for ecology – how it is a study not of things, but rather of relationships in a system, and a ‘deep ecology’ perspective includes the relationship between people and nature.

I developed this perspective because, growing up, I used to draw everything that I learned about in school. Through drawing I learned to see wholeness in nature, rather than subtractable parts, because in a drawing, a thing makes sense in relationship to everything else, including the human observer.

So, in the tradition of the early naturalists, I see art as a partner for the scientific process of exploring the deep sea. It was not even 100’s years ago that naturalist Beebe and engineer Barton, devised the bathysphere as a way to visit the deep.

In a two-ton ball of steel the two descended a half a mile into the depths off of Bermuda. But photography had not advanced enough to take images there, so Beebe called up through a telephone line to artist Bostleman on the ship. She painted and drew the wonderous and terrifying creatures of the deep that Beebe described, peering out of the porthole. While technology allowed the two men to reach the seafloor, art brought the deep ocean to life in the hearts and minds of people.

With the Dropcams, in process of annotation – which is identifying and counting the species present, I am constructing an index to map biodiversity in the deep sea. With the environmental variables that Whitney showed in the talk linked below, I model the relationship between biodiversity and the environment, turning those images into mathematical formulas, so that we can inform management of these systems based on science.

However, the process of exploration and discovery does not stop at that number. We can use imagination and inspiration to share transformative experiences from these special places, so that we share them on a deeper level. As scientists and explorers, we often get to see these wild places - places that not many people are able to go. But science alone cannot capture that immeasurable ‘sense of place’. You can do that with art.

I want people to connect with ocean places as a thing of beauty that that they are a part of.

I see a way that science, technology, and art together will allow us to not only go further, but to also bring back the wonders that we have found, to bridge a relationship between people and nature.

Thanks to everyone at Explorer’s Fest for the inspiring conversations and sparks of ideas to keep the transformations happening and reaching people far and wide.

Read more about the day's events here:

Photo credit: Leigh Vogel, National Geographic Explorers Festival


I am reflecting on our Seychelles expedition as I prepare to head to Washington DC for the Explorer's Festival. I am excited to speak on a panel called "The New Era of Discovery" and present on our Dropcam project. I'll be speaking about the science that we are doing, harnessing innovative technology, and also about the place for art and storytelling to help us not only go further, but also bring back what we have learned to enrich our communities. Please tune in live next week!

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Looking forward to following along. It crucial to tell a good story to keep the public engaged with such cool expeditions!
Thank you Kate! I agree - the story is key :-)
Nice! Eager to hear your reflections.
Thanks David! Hope to see you at Explorer's Fest!
In The Field

This post is a blurb from my field journal - it is a reflection after descending to 120m in a submarine off of Astove island. This time, instead of sending a camera down to the depths inside a glass sphere, I was the one inside the sphere. It was quite a moving experience to visit the deep ocean. I captured some of the thoughts and emotions in my reflective journaling/creative writing upon reaching the surface:

March 30th, 2019

"To 120 meters under the sea! Well, that put this human experience into perspective - a new understanding of wholeness, and how the ocean rules it.

The ocean twilight is adorned with shapes of blue, green, purple fish-jewels that delight out of the structures and caves.

At 100 meters in this twilight, we saw a wave-shaped overhang in the rock-wall. We were looking at the beach-line, 12,000 years ago.

Our small earth eyeballs see the coastlines change, landmasses change - shapes of continents and the connections between them change.

That sense of time, deep time, brings an indescribable peace. That is where we all go - into the recesses of the deep-sea.

A sea-change has it. We came from there, and there is where we are going. It already is that beautiful. Time and water make it so.

On the surface we experience the edges of things - our limits. The connection and context is beneath the surface.

The deep-sea where our center is still and deeply rooted. It's with the Imagination reaching to deep time where we find our connection to place."

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This must have been a truly remarkable experience! In the photos you posted I can see there is still quite a bit of light outside the sub. Were these photos taken at the target depth or during the descent?

Here at Aldabra, a beautiful bluntnose sixgill shark graced the dropcam footage at 320 meters depth. This amazing shark was the first creature in sight, and seemed shy around the dropcam lights, preferring to stay in the shadows. This was the largest and perhaps most surprising and rare species that we have seen so far on the expedition! It was an honor to draw such a noble creature, and I feel blessed to see this being in our footage.

That would be so exciting to see. I would not be able to sleep!
Super exciting! The shark moves so slowly and gracefully, it actually is quite calming to see :-)

Reporting from Alphonse in the Seychelles! We have had a few adventurous days here, including three deployments of the Dropcam! We are deploying Dropcam Martin (yes, they all have a name) overnight - programmed to release from the bottom at 12 hrs. In the dusk, we deploy Martin over the ship's side, and let him record on and off (three hours of footage, and the rest of the time resting) overnight. In the morning, we retrieve him, and I download the data, and get him ready for the next night's deployment. We have seen deep-water sharks, grenadier fish, and even a toadfish in the footage!
On the second day of deployments, a shark bit through the line, and poor Martin floated for over six hours through the night before we were able to retrieve him in the morning. He was a sneaky shark, I never caught a glimpse of him, just a bump against the camera with and when the lights flashed on, he disappeared. The very next clip, Martin was at the surface. Over the night, he attracted larval fish and baby octopus, which were all around him in the morning, much to our delight. Also much to our delight, the VHF radio beacon helped me to locate poor Martin whom was floating really quite far from his original deployment location where the ship was positioned to pick him up in the morning. We were all relieved to have him back on board!

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Do you use or think of employing some sort of an attractant or do you rely solely on chance - animal passing by?
That footage must be amazing!
The cameras are baited with ~ 1kg of bait (mackerel in this case). So awesome to see what it attracts from the deep!
Hello Jonatha, thanks for the info. Can you elaborate on the bait? Do you freeze it to slow down the break up? Put it in a metal mesh? Any info is appreciated!

We are underway! Heading towards our first site in the Seychelles. All the ships scientists and crew are busy preparing for the first day of science operations, with much anticipation! it sure takes a lot of gear and check-lists for everything to work.

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Day number 2 at National Geographic Exploration Technology headquarters in Washington DC. Gearing up, not only for my 7 weeks in the Seychelles, but also Pristine Sea's expedition to Costa Rica, and Alan's training/partner development in Bermuda. It will be a busy month for these cameras - can't wait to see what we find. And thanks to all the engineers and staff that keep these cameras running smoothly, I actually felt like MacGyver (for a brief moment) while setting them up and function testing them. That's credit to them! After buttoning everything up tomorrow, Alan and I head for the Seychelles early Thursday. Hurray!

Hello Jonatha. How do you pick the locations for your camera placements?
A lot of the time it is opportunistic, depending on where existing research expeditions are heading and if they would like to add an untethered benthic lander component to image the deep-sea.
Here, in the Banderas Bay, we have a deep canyon that reaches 1 km depth quite close to the shore. We know virtually nothing about the sea life there, with the exception of occasional deep sea organisms that get washed out dead on the southern beaches (Oarfish, Chimaera ..ect). In case you are one day looking for another candidate spot :). I would love to see what is down there ... Good luck with your project!

It is an exciting time indeed, gearing up for two months at sea! I will be joining scientists and crew from Oxford University Nekton Deep Ocean Research Institute in the Seychelles. It is a fantastic opportunity for us to be a part of this unique partnership between National Geographic, Seychelles and Nekton to conduct pioneering research in this part of the world. Just like the name of the mission, it truly is a “First Descent” into these waters. What is even more exciting is that the mission focuses on capacity development and public engagement to support the implementation of Seychelles Marine Spatial Plan (including 30% protection of the EEZ) and the sustainable development of their Blue Economy. Further, I am bringing my colored pencils! Along with many cases and hundreds of pounds of camera gear to capture video of the sea floor, I will also have my small case of pencils and notebook, to capture a bit of the ‘feeling’ of being there – something that could be missed with just digital recordings. Tune in for sketches and stories here! Also check out the live stream and news coverages:

Come along with us on the “first descent” into the deep!

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Looks amazing! Can't wait to hear more from you and the expedition!
Thank you Nuno! I'm so excited to share it!

As I am pulling together analyses of Deep-ocean Dropcam footage from across 4 sites in the Tropical Eastern Pacific (TEP), I am reflecting on the unique characteristics of this oceanic region. This drawing is my way of contemplating the ecology of the area in a language of color, light, and form.

The TEP forms a hotspot, both for the origin and maintenance of biodiversity in the sea. Due to the longitudinal East Pacific Rise, which limits population connectivity by creating a spatial barrier to gene flow and dispersal among marine organisms, the Tropical East Pacific is largely isolated from the wider Pacific Ocean.

The islands and archipelagos that we surveyed (Galapagos, Clipperton, Malpelo – collectively termed the “Ocean Island Province”) likely represent important stepping-stones and corridors for species connectivity across the Tropical Eastern Pacific and the wider Pacific Ocean.

The Ocean Island Province of the TEP lies in a confluence of currents, and likely is a migration pathway for iconic species such as sharks and tunas that we saw in the video footage. This area represents a corridor for highly migratory species, within the Eastern Tropical Pacific, and across the East Pacific Barrier. Therefore, the preservation of these intact ecosystems is crucial for maintaining biodiversity both within the TEP and as feedback to the wider Pacific region.

Given that the islands have smaller fauna compared to neighboring mainland areas, they are also sensitive to species extinctions. Due to its unique configuration of isolation and connectivity, the seascape of the TEP forms a cradle for the genesis and maintenance of biodiversity. The marine protected areas of the Tropical Eastern Pacific are in place to safeguard the entire ecosystem and its species.


Last week, two Dropcams (affectionately named “Doc” and “Beebe”) paid a visit to Hawaii for user training, conducted by Exploration Technology Lab's Alan Turchik and Jess Elfadl. The Dropcams were here on a tech transfer to the Exploration Vessel Nautilus as they make their way across the Pacific Ocean, from Hawaii to the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) and finally to Monterey California, on a deep-sea exploration and mapping mission.

Ocean Exploration Trust’s Lindsay Gee and Erin Heffron will be the care-takers of Doc and Beebe as they journey to the deep and bring back images of the sea-floor. I am excited to see what they bring back, and share their stories!

The Dropcams are in good hands with Lindsay and Erin. The training was so thorough- everything a user could need has been thoughtfully and meticulously documented. The flow of procedures - from mission programing, to deployment, to recovery, to data download, all are perfectly laid out, making it easy for both the user and the Dropcams to succeed at their missions. Of course, we had beautiful sunny, warm, and calm weather here in Kailua-Kona Hawaii, so here is hoping that the weather will as pleasant and friendly as in training conditions! Cheers to a wonderful voyage to the Nautilus, and to Doc and Beebe on their great journey. Thanks for giving us a window into the unseen world beneath the surface.

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I had the wonderful opportunity to spend the past week at the Deep-Sea Biology Symposium in Monterey, CA. Not only did I get to share our global deep-ocean dropcam project with the society, but I got to learn about so many amazing discoveries, explorations, and stewardship initiatives happening now to understand and protect our deep ocean. The Deep-Sea Biology Society is an amazing group and I am so thankful to be a part of it. Check out all of their resources here:

The next meeting will take place in Japan in 2021. I am so excited for all that we will accomplish over the next three years, and be able to share and connect again on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. It was truly an inspiring and enlightening week. Thankful for all of these friends who are bright lights shining for the deep ocean.

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Update for the Malpelo, Colombia deep-sea video footage analysis – I’ve stopped to draw this awesome Scalloped Hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini) shark from 116m depth.

This shark can reach 14 feet in length! It is found in tropical and warm temperate waters worldwide, in coastal areas and along the continental shelf.

In this frame, I love how the shark emerges out of the shadowy depths, and how the water flows around its crescent head. The light and dark contrast in this frame is very intriguing, and I love how the great shark forms the water around it with its sleek motion.

The Scalloped Hammerhead is an Endangered species. Due to the demand for shark fin soup, this species is heavily fished for its large fins. To avoid further population decline, this shark and its habitat are in desperate need of protection.


I am now embarking on compiling the first chapter of our global deep ocean ecosystem health assessment, which will be a look at species community composition and biodiversity in the Eastern Pacific Ocean.

Now I am viewing video footage captured from Malpelo Island, in the Pacific Island off of Colombia. Pristine Seas made an expedition there earlier this year:

As I view the deep sea Dropcam footage to ID species and count their numbers, I also like to stop and draw some of the creatures because with drawing I access a much deeper window into the species biology and ecology. It allows me to spend more time with the creatures encountered, and come up with new questions about them. It takes more time, but I find it to be a really fruitful method of inquiry, as well.

This picture is of an uncommon shark, though is seen frequently on the deployments at Malpelo. Its species name is Echinorhinus cookie (or Prickly shark) and it is found to ~1,100 meters depth in the Pacific Ocean. Its body is covered in an armor of thorn-like, teeth known as ‘denticles’ (hence the “Prickly” common name). This shark gets to be quite large (up to 400 cm). It feeds on a variety of fishes, other sharks, octopi and squids.

It is classified as Near Threatened by IUCN. It appears to be vulnerable to deepwater trawling and line fishing. With increased fishing activities, this may negatively impact their already small and fragmented populations. Being large and slow-growing, they have limited ability to recover from disturbances.

As I drew this picture, I thought about the negative space, the surrounding watery environment under such great pressures - what does it feel like to move through water at 1,000m depth? I too would want those large fins, and to be covered in teeth for armor!

For Open Explorer updates from the field of the Dropcam in action now, check out amazing explorers Katy Croff Bell and Diva Amon on a current expedition in Trinidad and Tobago:


The earth’s surface is mostly covered by ocean. How do we even begin to prioritize where to drop cameras to view what lies beneath the surface? Because of the pioneering work of National Geographic’s Pristine Seas, we already have a global foundation to build upon, to begin constructing the index of deep ocean ecosystem health. Dr. Enric Sala and his team have collected video footage from many remote and amazing places across the world’s ocean. This map shows some of the sites with existing video footage that we can synthesize to jump-start the global assessment (follow the Pristine Seas missions here, on Open Explorer!). Going forward, our team will be building platforms to organize the data, viewing and annotating the video footage, identifying sea creatures and counting their abundances, analyzing the data for patterns in biodiversity, and strategizing where to drop the cameras next!


To explore the deep ocean we need innovative technologies and new solutions to let us see even further into the deep sea, and to shine a light there. The Deep Ocean Dropcam, developed by National Geographic Exploration Technology Lab, as an efficient way to capture video of the sea floor. It is a high definition camera encased in a pressure housing rated to go to the deepest part of the ocean, with onboard lights to illuminate the scene. The camera is weighted and free falls to the sea floor, where it is programmed to record for a number of hours. When it is done recording, the burnwire connecting it to the weight dissolves, and it freely floats to the surface for recovery by the ship. Check out the video here on the camera’s drop and recovery with awesome engineer Brad Henning!

Expedition Background

The deep sea is the least explored and the least understood part of our planet. In this vast and extreme environment, even less is known about the biological communities that exist there, or the biogeography of deep ocean species. Out of sight and out of mind, these fragile ecosystems are silently at risk of extinction from climate and anthropogenic pressures in this time of rapid global change. To attain a planet in balance and sustainable futures, it is evermore imperative to expand human understanding to the deep sea. This project is designed to transform innovative exploration technology (the Deep Ocean Dropcam) into an active research program to protect biodiversity in the deep sea. We will establish a baseline deep ocean health assessment to identify areas for the protection of biodiversity and monitor ecosystem health into the future. With the expansion of the Dropcam program, we have the opportunity to bring the deep sea into sight and into mind.


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