Exploring MBARI and the Tech Behind Deep Sea Videos

We here at Nerdist love watching videos about the ocean. Especially when there’s critters in them that we never even knew existed. Like the barreleye fish and its translucent head. Or the carnivorous harp sponge. Whether you want to learn or just vibe out to deep sea videos, there’s an amazing collection on the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute’s (MBARI) YouTube channel. Scientists have described more than 240 new species based on footage and collections by MBARI. Jordan Peele even used some of them as inspiration while designing aliens for his film Nope. So we jumped at the chance to visit MBARI and see just how much science, technology, and manpower is behind those wonderful deep sea videos.

MBARI facilities in Moss Landing, California, at sunset
© 2012 MBARI

Ships and ROVS

MBARI is located right on the beach in Moss Landing, California. Just offshore, the ocean floor drops quickly into Monterey Canyon. This allows MBARI’s ships convenient access to the deep sea. The research vessel (R/V) Rachel Carson goes out almost every day, deploying the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Ventana to depths of just over a mile.

The MBARI ships Western Flyer and Rachel Carson docked in Moss Landing, California
Melissa T. Miller

The R/V Western Flyer is home to ROV Doc Ricketts (pictured below, left). The vehicle has a 4K camera and is named after the character in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, who was based on real-life marine biologist Ed Ricketts. The ship goes on expeditions of seven to 10 days. Western Flyer will soon retire from service, but a new one, the R/V David Packard, is coming in 2023

The ROV pilots operate like skilled surgeons. They control the vehicles using joysticks reminiscent of arcade games. It’s no small feat to keep everything smooth while the ship is moving on the open sea. And it’s not just video they collect, but specimens as well. The pilots corral animals and also pick up sediment and other samples using the ROV’s various arms and tools. MBARI has a deep tank on site (pictured below, right) so scientists and crew members can test out their devices before taking them out to sea.

On the left is MBARI’s remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Doc Ricketts beneath the twin hulls of the research vessel Western Flyer. On the right is MBARI’s portable remotely operated vehicle, MiniROV, in the test tank at the institute’s research facilities in Moss Landing, California.
Randy Prickett and Erich Rienecker © 2018 MBARI/Todd Walsh © 2012 MBARI

Autonomous Vehicles and Other Tech

Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) are the next step in ocean exploration. The team aboard Rachel Carson deploys one called i2MAP. It is equipped with a video camera and lights as well as water chemistry sensors. Unlike the ROV, it doesn’t require a human pilot. It also operates faster and quieter.

MBARI also has a rover, similar to those NASA sends to the Moon or Mars. Benthic Rover II crawls across the seafloor and stops to sample for 48 hour periods. It is also autonomous and can be deployed for a full year to collect data. Another cool instrument is the so-called smart boulder. Scientists designed them to get caught up in underwater landslides. They track the devices down, pull them out of the mud, and download data from the orange and white BB-8 lookalikes.  

The Benthic Rover is a robot that travels across the deep-sea mud, taking photographs and measuring how much oxygen seafloor animals and microbes are using over time.

MBARI also has a cabled observatory. Instruments over 30 miles out in Monterey Bay and half a mile below the surface connect right to the institute. Data is available right away and batteries don’t need to be swapped out. There’s even an underwater microphone, called a hydrophone, connected to the array that you can listen to online. There’s often whales and dolphins in the vicinity, but even when the ocean seems abandoned, it is never quiet.

Machine Learning

There’s a team of people to process all the video coming in from ROV and AUV dives. 27,000 hours of footage, in fact. I spoke with research technician Megan Bassett, who usually watches the video on one quarter speed back in MBARI’s video lab. She identifies all the animals she sees, some of which just look like star fields shooting past the camera like in Star Trek. “When I started working here, it was a learning curve,” she says. “I had to learn a whole new ecosystem of species. And they’re all clear and their shapes get all weird.”  

Recovering the i2MAP autonomous underwater vehicle from Monterey Bay on MBARI’s research vessel Rachel Carson.
Rob Sherlock © 2017 MBARI

MBARI is training an algorithm to identify animals and speed up the process. “There’s always going to be a human eye on our video,” says Bassett. “But if we can cut out the top five most abundant things we see, that can shave off hours and hours of our time.” 

Bassett’s workstation includes a screen with ROV video and one that links that footage to all the other data the team collects. Location of the sighting, plus water depth, temperature, and salinity. This information helps scientists find patterns in the observations. MBARI also updates their guide to deep sea life with every new piece of footage. It’s an invaluable resource to scientists, but is also publicly available and full of amazing clips and images.

Work station at MBARI's video lab, with screens showing ROV video and identification software
Melissa T. Miller

David Packard (of Hewlett-Packard) founded MBARI in 1987. Only a few years before, he funded the nearby Monterey Bay Aquarium, which I also visited. While the aquarium’s focus is on education and conservation, the non-profit research institute is its research and technology partner. MBARI’s mission is to develop technology to explore and better understand the ocean. Meanwhile, it also amazes and engages armchair scientists and ocean enthusiasts around the world.

Melissa is Nerdist’s science & technology staff writer. She also moderates “science of” panels at conventions and co-hosts Star Warsologies, a podcast about science and Star Wars. Follow her on Twitter @melissatruth. 

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