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Action, camera ... lights: deep-sea light post illuminates ocean's perpetual night.

Exploring the seafloor can be like using a flashlight to find something in a dark basement. Just one-third of a mile beneath the sea surface, ambient light fades to black, requiring oceanographers to beam their own light to see what's around them and to take photos and video of the deep.

Until now, illumination has come mainly from multiple lights mounted on deep-sea vehicles. In the summer of 2005, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution scientists and engineers designed something entirely different: a tall, portable light system. Named the "deep-sea light post," it blazes with a single, 1.200-watt bulb on top of an 8-foot pole, powered by five 100-pound batteries in watertight housings.

The light post's illuminating power is 20 times stronger than that of the average 60-watt household bulb. The device gives off nearly as much light as each bulb used to illuminate Boston's Fenway Park.

Best of all. the 1,400-pound instrument--which weighs 200 pounds in water--can be moved around the seafloor by the remotely operated vehicle Jason 2. This provides oceanographers with views of large seafloor features from different angles, essentially transforming areas of the deep sea into a photography studio.

As high-resolution photography and video have become more affordable and routine in deep-sea research in the last decade, so has the need for powerful and adaptable lighting systems. WHOI geologist Dan Fornari spearheaded the project this summer to build the light post in just six weeks with several WHOI researchers and engineers, including Marshall Swartz and Steve Liberatore.

It was first tested in September 2005 for use with a new University of Washington high-definition video camera mounted on Jason 2 that provided live broadcasts from the seafloor to the Internet. WHOI engineer Robert Fuhrmann helped operate Jason 2.

"SPECTACULAR," University of "Washington oceanographer Debbie Kelley wrote of the light post in an e-mail after testing the instrument on the Juan de Fuca Ridge offshore Seattle. There, the rugged and strangely beautiful seafloor landscape is carpeted with crabs, snails, and tubeworms living around tall hydrothermal vent chimneys, some the size of six-story buildings.

"The camera worked, the light turned on, and it was as if we had walked into the land of the Hobbit," Kelley wrote from the research vessel Thomas G. Thompson. "It gave us views of the field we have never seen before. It was something I will not forget for a long time."

The light post's broad, bright beam gave Kelley and John Delaney, both lead scientists on the expedition, a chance to sec a large portion of a 25-meter (82-foot) hydrothermal chimney called Hulk.

"For the first rune, I got a big overview of the structure." Kelley said. "Normally I'm just getting little glimpses."

Powerful lights, adapted for use in the cold temperatures and crushing pressure of the deep ocean, have been developed by the San Diego-based company DeepSea Power & Light and used on diving vehicles at WHOI since the early 1990s. Hollywood directors have even capitalized on this type of intense lighting, perhaps most famously in filming underwater scenes in the 1997 movie Titanic.

Amy E. Nevala

Funding to develop the deep-sea light post came from the National Science Foundation.
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Author:Nevala, Amy E.
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2005
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