SEVENSEAS Marine Conservation & Travel Issue 17, October 2016 - Page 26

As a marine conservationist, I recognize the immense importance of portraying the underwater world through photographs and multimedia. These forms of communication allow a wider audience to understand and appreciate the astonishing natural assets beneath our waves. Compelling imagery takes on a significant role in supporting many forms of cutting edge science. However, the development of compact 360° cameras has posed the potential to be truly revolutionary in how we capture and portray the underwater world. The possibilities have created a considerable whisper in the exploration industry, and I have waited anxiously for these cameras to penetrate the ocean’s surface. While many people, myself included, view LG’s 360° camera as an innovative way to capture adventures and imagery from a new perspective, I also see an invaluable scientific tool.

While completing my thesis research in the Florida Keys, conducting fish survey after fish survey on SCUBA, my GoPro became an essential tool. In fact, on some standardized fish surveys, scientific divers are required to bring cameras to document their findings. There are many advantages to this method: perish the thought that you are fortunate enough to observe a new species or the Kraken and you don’t have a camera to capture any footage. Cameras also have the potential to capture cryptic species that can be missed by the human eye. There are also situations that occur underwater that are, for whatever reason, difficult to explain once you return to the surface. Namely, diving is a focus-intensive activity, and regardless of how seasoned the SCUBA diver, there is just no level of experience that allows one to jump in the water thoughtlessly. Divers have to give their utmost attention to dive time, air consumption, dive equipment, ocean currents, their dive buddy, potentially hazardous marine life and many other things to ensure safety when they are 20-130 feet below their natural life support. Divers simply cannot see everything around them while considering all these aspects. For this reason, many divers know a story or two of a marine ecologist who was focused on the reef, conducting a coral survey, unaware of an eight-foot bull shark lingering just above them. This is where a 360° camera becomes an incredible tool; scientists never have to miss a thing. These cameras literally give a diver eyes in the back of their head, capturing comprehensive scenes, which can be replayed again and again. This ability virtually eliminates the problem of not seeing a species, accidentally counting a fish twice, or missing out on documenting a species’ interesting behavior.

Soon we will have the ability to leave these cameras recording on the ocean floor, independent of divers. This enables 360° cameras to play an even more important role in capturing the behavior of marine organisms, potentially in ways that we never have before. In general, it is accepted that divers alter animal behavior; if aliens descended from the sky, awkwardly flopping around, blowing bubbles, we would probably act differently as well. Leaving a small, rolling camera on the bottom of the ocean floor essentially allows scientists to spy on marine organisms without influencing their behavior or having to return to the surface when their SCUBA air runs low. Even better, using a 360° camera allows scientists to see more than they would with a normal camera, which ensures that nothing is missed from the time the camera starts recording.

For instance, I spent five months diving in the Dry Tortugas, a small archipelago 50 miles west of Key West. During this time, I saw two reef sharks, both less than three feet long. Shortly after I left the Tortugas, Dr. James Locascio from Mote Marine Laboratory showed me his footage of the Dry Tortugas, captured by a camera that he had set up on the seafloor. After several minutes of the camera rolling, a great white shark slowly glides in front of the frame and, just as effortlessly, disappears. It was enough to make the hair on the back of my neck stand, realizing that after five months of diving these same reefs, this incredibly large animal may have been lurking just outside of my periphery, too shy to approach the bubble-blowing alien I played in its world. The footage is a rare capture and lends great insight to the area; others had confidently assured me that there were no great white sharks in the Dry Tortugas!

However, the video poses questions that can’t be answered. What brought the shark in, what motivated it to leave? Was it investigating the camera? Was there another shark nearby but out of the camera’s frame? If so, were they mating? These are all questions that make a difference in science and might have been answered if the scene had been captured with a 360° view. For now, 360° cameras provide great footage of close encounters with incredible animals; however, they have the potential to help scientists in the field answer countless questions in the future. I look forward to seeing this amazing technology evolve and I hope to be part of future projects that use these devices to explore the underwater world.

26 - SEVENSEAS