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Salas y Gómez Expedition: Dropcams Scan the Depths

Eric Berkenpas with National Geographic’s Remote Imaging team has brought along three dropcams–glass spheres with lights and video cameras inside designed to descend to the bottom, film, and return to the surface. Their purpose on this trip–to record deep-water creatures and environments near Salas y Gómez. I spoke with Eric about how the cameras work, where they’ve been, and what he and the team hope to find with them on this expedition.
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Eric and the Chilean Navy crew push the dropcam overboard. After they attach a length of heavy chain to ballast the bouyant camera system, it will sink to the seafloor below and film for five or six hours before releasing the chain and returning to the surface.
By Ford Cochran
How do the dropcams work?
The dropcams were developed as an alternative to more expensive studies with submersibles or remotely-operated robots, and a way to get lots of high-definition footage from the deepest places in the world. We use a borosilicate glass sphere. We polish the ball and put a camera inside it with a computer, some batteries, and some LED lights. The computer does everything: It tells the camera to record and turns on the lights.
We take the camera, push it over the side of the boat, let it sink to the bottom, and hope there’s something interesting down there to film. When it’s finished recording, the computer shuts off the lights and releases the ballast weight. The dropcam floats back up to the surface so we can recover it and download the video off the camera. Usually, we bait the camera so that any critters in the area will come and sniff around, and with luck we’ll catch them on video.
That’s the idea. It’s basically a poor-man’s underwater robot.
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A pair of dropcams loaded in one of the Comandante Toro’s fast boats for transport to their next drop sites.
Where else has National Geographic used these dropcams before bringing them out on this expedition?
The camera was first tested in the Puerto Rico Trench about eight and a half kilometers (5.3 miles) down. We identified some issues with the lights there, fixed the lighting, then took them to the Porcupine Abyssal Plain in the North Atlantic. We attached the cameras to a bunch of scientific instrumentation that the European Union was using to study climate change and watched these instruments as they landed on the seafloor. Then we got an opportunity to go to a newly studied deeper spot in the Puerto Rico Trench. We chartered a sailboat, went back there, and with the lighting fixed got some good footage of amphipods.
So Salas y Gómez is the fourth expedition for these dropcams.
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Eric repairs a broken dropcam. “It’s Apollo 13 every time,” he says.
What sorts of environments are you probing with the dropcams here at Salas y Gómez?
We’re part of the larger expedition, conducting a survey of life in the new marine park here at Salas y Gómez. Underwater, there are three parts to that: First, we have scuba divers that can go down to about 40 meters (about 130 feet). Then there’s an ROV, a tethered submersible that’s robotic and remote-controlled from the surface, that can go to about 200 to 300 meters (about 650 to 1,000 feet).
A little further from the island, you can find water up to about 4,000 meters (more than 13,000 feet) deep near Salas y Gómez, so we’ve brought these dropcams with us, and we’ve been deploying them around the island at different depths. We’re doing our survey at a ring of sites around the island to begin to get a census of the life that exists below diver and ROV depths.
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Eric Berkenpas reviews dropcam footage for the first time from a successful deep deployment off Salas y Gómez.
Given the work that goes into constructing each dropcam, the electronics inside, and the pictures they capture, each one is incredibly valuable. Once the dropcams go in the water, do you hold your breath until they bob back to the surface and get retrieved?
I’m always a little worried. The way I think about it is when you throw something into the ocean, it’s basically lost until you get it back on the boat. Our team took a lot of measures to make sure we get the cameras back. We have several beacons: a light beacon, a VHF radio beacon, and a satellite beacon. But there’s always that feeling of butterflies when you push one over the side. You might never see it again.
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An eel and a fish make their television debuts in dropcam video recorded on a seamount off Salas y Gómez.
Photos by Ford Cochran

The science team will share frequent updates and media from the expedition, including photographs, videos and links to Google maps, here on the National Geographic News Watch blog. You can also follow the expedition on Google Earth by clicking on the blue ship icon located where the expedition begins near Easter Island, roughly 2,000 miles (3,300 km) northwest of Santiago, Chile. (Make sure the “Places” layer is turned on).

National Geographic and Oceana are members of Mission Blue
View all dispatches from the Salas y Gómez expedition here