From deep-sea battles to new discoveries, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) just keeps bringing us jaw-dropping videos of the mysterious (and still largely unexplored) world of the deep sea. Thanks to Susan von Thun, a senior research technician in the MBARI video lab, I recently got to take a peek behind the scenes at just how they do it – and it was pretty epic! 

4 Rovs Go Out On This Ship
In a former life, Rachel Carson was an oil-field supply boat in the Gulf of Mexico. She has since been refitted to serve as MBARI's research vessel.

Stepping into the control room on the Rachel Carson, the research vessel owned and operated by MBARI (and named after marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson), is an overwhelming experience. My eyes bounce from monitor to monitor, scanning the endless sea of illuminated buttons, toggles and dials (I admit, I’ve never wanted to push a red button so badly!). Though the pilot chairs are empty, the energy in the small room is nearly palpable – exuding the collaborative energy and creativity that the MBARI team puts into everything it does. 

"Half of the people who work here are engineers," von Thun tells me. "It took us about a year to outfit the new ship for science."

Most of the instruments used for deep-sea exploration are created in MBARI’s in-house machine shop, which neighbours a seemingly endless warehouse filled with a gear-and-gadget arsenal that would send Tony Stark into a drooling stupor.

The giant remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) like the Ventana and its smaller Arctic-exploring counterpart the Mini ROV are perhaps the most famous of the MBARI explorers.

5 Rov Pilot Working On Ventana
ROV pilot Mike Burczynski works on the Ventana, which can dive up to 1850 metres deep and is fitted with 400-watt lights. It's also equipped with data collection sensors, a high-definition camera and animal collection devices.
2 Rov In Shop Awaiting Tests
In addition to its ROVs, MBARI has also developed unmanned, untethered undersea robots called autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). Programmed at the surface, they can then navigate through the water on their own, collecting data as they go. MBARI hopes to eventually be able to send them as far as Hawaii.

They may be the most famous, but the ROVs represent just one branch of the institute's robotic fleet. "This is what we call the Deep ESP," von Thun says, pointing to a disassembled heap in the corner of the room. An environmental sample processor, or ESP, is essentially a molecular biology lab packed inside a canister the size of a kitchen garbage can. When triggered, it takes a sample of the surrounding water and can perform biological and chemical testing on its own. "We call it our lab in a can," von Thun says. "Our hope is that the deep-sea model will help us better understand what’s happening around cold seeps, hydrothermal vents and whale falls."

Taking equipment out to sea each time an engineering modification is required would be costly and time consuming, so MBARI has brought the sea home, in the form of a ten-meter-deep testing tank. The tank allows the scientists to observe how the instruments handle water, salinity and small pressures – before they go out to sea.

"We can do almost everything we need in-house," von Thun says. "Some of our instruments go to depths as low as four thousand metres – we have to make a lot of adjustments. It’s a great example of science and engineering coming together to answer questions that we couldn’t have answered in the past."

Seaworthy ROVs are deployed from ships like the Rachel Carson ... which brings us back to the mind-boggling control room (and yes, all of those tantalizing buttons).

9 The Control Room On The Ship Takes 4 People To Man The Rov From Here
Buttons! The control room on board the Rachel Carson looks a little like a space ship. It is from here that the ROVs are controlled by pilots and researchers.

From the ship, the pilot handles 'flying' the ROV, while a copilot handles any manipulating that needs to be done with the ROV's robotic arms, which are used for grabbing and moving items in the sea. As if that wasn’t enough, a chief scientist sits to one side of the pilot, zooming and focusing one of the ROV's many cameras. A tether links the ROV to the ship, delivering power to the vehicle, as well as allowing data and video images to be sent back to the ship.

"You’re constantly talking to one another," von Thun says. "I’ll say: 'There! That dot, there, no, over there!'. Then we can stop, zoom in, and continue on when we’ve finished – the entire process is collaborative."

8 Detritus Canisters Used To Capture Organisms Like The Bareeleye In Their Viral Video
Detritus samplers like these are large plexiglass containers that are attached to the arms of an ROV in order to collect fragile deep-sea organisms. They can be controlled by the pilot of the ROV and gently closed once an organism is trapped inside.

Long days on the ship mean long days for the crew in the MBARI video lab, where the footage gathered during a dive is replayed and annotated. "This step can take two to four times longer than the 10-12 hour dives because we annotate the footage extremely thoroughly. In a single observation we will have camera parameters, navigation information, what organisms we see, and even things like depth and salinity, all being put into our database," von Thun says.

Scientists can access the information in the MBARI database for use in their research. That's information from over 19,000 hours of footage to date! At four to five gigabytes per minute, that’s one massive archive. "By doing this, our footage becomes useful to a lot of people," she says.

From engineering to streaming, an immense amount of work goes into creating the awe-inspiring MBARI videos we get to enjoy. "We are evolving in this modern world and getting people excited about science. It’s making the world better," von Thun says.   

Have questions for the MBARI team? You can find them on Twitter: @MBARI_News

Top header image: kqedquest, Flickr