Into the Deep

Latest update October 30, 2018 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.

July 16, 2018
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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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