Journey to the Bottom of the Sea

It's no man-eating squid footage, but the video of the pearly sea pig above is still proof of the marvelous: It comes straight from the ocean floor, courtesy of the world's largest and most advanced cabled observatory of its kind, NEPTUNE Canada.

For the next 25 years, the observatory will continuously relay real-time data collected from the depths of the Pacific Ocean to a central database at the University of Victoria, Canada. And here's the coolest part: Anyone with Internet access can mine the findings (log on here). In other words, researchers and the public alike can troll underwater without leaving their lab bench or desk. (See an introduction to the program and a selection of the best videos here.)

A program led by the University of Victoria, NEPTUNE Canada relies on a nearly-500 mile loop of fiber-optic cable installed off the west coast of Vancouver Island. A handful of giant nodes--each the size of a standard office and weighing 13.5 tons--situated along the cable provide massive amounts of power and communications to hundreds of research instruments distributed in the area. The array will enable NEPTUNE Canada to amass more than 60 terabytes of scientific data (for the non-techies, that's the equivalent of text in about 60 million books or the content of 15,000 DVDs) a year on biological, physical, chemical, and geological processes occurring in the Pacific.

A map of the NEPTUNE Canada ocean observatory. The cable is buried under the continental shelf until about 5,000 feet and then exposed on the surface. The node closest to the coast is located at about 330 feet; the deepest node is at nearly 9,000 feet. Courtesy of NEPTUNE Canada.

In the past, ocean researchers had to rely largely on inconsistent data collected from satellites and ships that ventured out only for a few weeks at a time, and under restricted conditions. Now they'll have access to a constant flow of information that's delivered faster than an email. "What we're at here is just the start of wiring the oceans; it really is a new era," said Dr. Chris Barnes, NEPTUNE Canada's program director, in a phone interview yesterday. "It literally transforms the way you do science."

One of the 13.5-ton nodes. Courtesy of NEPTUNE Canada

Other observatories are also being planned or installed across the globe, including off the coast of Japan and China, as well as Europe and the U.S. Together with NEPTUNE Canada, they'll provide an uprecedented richness in data with diverse and multiple applications. Think fisheries management. Think tsunami detection. Resource development. National security. And oh, right, let's not forget the biggie: understanding the nuances of climate change. "One small click of a mouse--one giant leap toward ocean discoveries that will benefit the entire world," said Iain Black, British Columbia minister of Small Business, Technology, and Economic Development in a press release announcing NEPTUNE Canada's launch this past December 2009.

So, next time you're itching for some adventure, make like a modern Jules Verne and log online to dive several thousand leagues under the sea. Maybe you'll eventually see that squid...

Courtesy of NEPTUNE Canada

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