Researchers deploy new tech to explore depths of Gulf of Mexico

A multi-institution team consisting of the University of Washington School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences (UW SAFS) Professor John Horne will deploy experimental technology next week to explore the deep scattering layers of the ocean. In addition to Horne, the UW team includes Ross Hytnen Jr. and summer intern Raymond Surya (a JISAO intern from the University of Michigan). Horne’s lab at SAFS uses active acoustic technologies to count and characterize aquatic organism distributions and dynamics throughout the world.

They are looking for information about animals in the Gulf of Mexico that make up the scattering layers — those that undergo daily vertical migrations of 100 to 1,000 meters. These animals represent the largest organized animal migration on the planet, yet little is known about them. What scientists do know is these animals are major players in the global carbon cycle, transporting carbon to deeper waters as they migrate. Some of them are part of a global discussion about whether they could have economic potential from a fisheries standpoint.

The research team will deploy an autonomous glider modified with sonar technology to collect up-close and personal data on the migrating animals in the water column. The slow-moving glider can stealthily travel through the water measuring where organisms are and how they are moving. An exciting addition to the glider is an ‘acoustic brain’ developed by the University of Washington team that processes acoustic data and sends data products home through a satellite connection. Having near-real-time acoustic data facilitates changes to the glider path when interesting acoustic features are observed.

Four of the scientists holding the glider in the lab
(L to R) Raymond Surya (UW JISAO summer intern from U Michigan), Ross Hytnen UW and Allen Institute for Brain Science, Chad Lembke Center for Ocean Technology College of Marine Science University of South Florida, John Horne UW SAFS

“We are excited to add the acoustic brain to the glider scientific package,” says Horne. “This is the first test of this capability, which should ultimately lead to adaptive sampling on autonomous platforms including gliders.”

The team will simultaneously deploy a prototype camera system developed by the National Geographic Society called the Driftcam. Also an autonomous device, the Driftcam is designed to collect high-resolution images of species composition, distribution and even behavior that is not possible to capture with current technologies and methods. It too is a minimally invasive device.

The prototype Driftcam developed by the National Geographic Society underwater next to a diver
The prototype Driftcam developed by the National Geographic Society. Dave McAloney, National Geographic Society

The research project is supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of Ocean Exploration and Research. Chief scientist Kevin Boswell, an Associate Professor at Florida International University, leads the research team which is comprised of additional scientists from NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, National Geographic Society, Nova Southeastern University, and the University of South Florida.

“Our goal is to look into the deep sea without interfering,” Boswell said. “We hope to observe these animals in their natural states and collect data on their sizes, how complex their aggregations are, and learn more about their behaviors.”

Current methods include acoustic measurements from ship-based sonar and throwing nets into the water to collect specimens. Ship-based sonar is limited in its reach and detail at deeper depths. And net collections are invasive and don’t provide great insight on animal behavior including the types of groups these animals migrate with — do they stick with their own kind or do they intermingle.

Traditional ship-based sonar and the experimental technologies will be combined to create a swarm of data collection in the same areas at the same time to provide a clearer picture of life in the oceans. If successful, the four-day mission which launches on July 28th from St. Petersburg, FL, will advance marine research by providing new, proven tools for seeing what lies beneath.

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For more information, contact Horne at jhorne@uw.edu.

This post was adapted from a Florida International University news release.

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