Modern oceanographers have a variety of tools that help them discover, examine, and describe marine environments. Tow Cam, for example, is specially designed to handle the extreme conditions of the deep sea. Tow Cam is the first digital camera system designed to take high-quality imagery of the seafloor at depths of almost 6,100 meters. It can also collect rock, lava, and water samples.
Since its completion in 2002, Tow Cam has been used to study seafloor environments as diverse as the New England Seamounts, Galapagos Rift, Gulf of Mexico, and offshore Taiwan and Iceland. It has captured roughly 280,000 photographs and collected more than 300 samples of volcanic glass. Through these photographic and material samples, Tow Cam has facilitated the study of underwater geology and volcanology around the globe.
Since its first dive in 1997, BIOMAPER has been used to study phytoplankton, zooplankton, and krill in the Gulf of Maine and the Southern Ocean around Antarctica. BIOMAPER uses five sonar units that transmit sound waves of different frequencies.
These frequencies bounce off objects of different sizes and echo back to the research unit. BIOMAPER uses these echoes to calculate how large and how far away particles are. Unlike conventional nets, which can only sample areas up to 5 meters (16 feet), BIOMAPER can record data from 500 meters (1,640 feet) deep.
BIOMAPER also measures water temperature, salinity, oxygen, chlorophyll, and light levels. These physical properties are important to the development of phytoplankton, zooplankton, and krill. This microscopic sea life makes up a large part of the diet of many marine animals. Plankton and krill are considered indicator species of the ocean’s overall vitality. By mapping and measuring the environment of this microscopic sea life, BIOMAPER helps oceanographers describe the habitats and health of the open ocean.
JASON is a remote-controlled, deep-diving vessel that allows scientists to explore the seafloor efficiently. Unlike short, expensive dives in a submarine, JASON can be guided through underwater environments as deep as 6 kilometres (4 miles) for days on end.
JASON uses a variety of instruments to record information and collect materials. Six colour video cameras, one still camera, and sonar capture and map the seafloor.
Two robotic manipulator arms allow scientists to collect samples of rocks, water, and sea life, and construct and manoeuvre other research instruments. Specially designed water containers are able to collect the extremely hot waters of hydrothermal vents and preserve the chemical composition of samples through their ascent to the surface.
JASON’s technology has been used for a variety of research and educational purposes. It has investigated hydrothermal vents in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. It has also explored many shipwrecks that were once out of reach for underwater archaeologists, extracting samples such as tools and pottery. As part of the JASON project, the vessel broadcasts images and reports to classrooms and over the Internet, allowing the public a rare glimpse into deep-sea environments.