Monday, March 5, 2012

Costa Rica: Documenting the Deep

The Aquarium is sponsoring an expedition to explore seamounts, or underwater volcanos, in Costa Rica, along with several leading underwater exploration and research groups. Look for stories and pictures about this expedition from Aquarium explorers. Learn about previous expeditions to study seamounts in the Sea of Cortez and Raja Ampat, Indonesia.

Today's post comes from Brian Skerry (at left), New England Aquarium Explorer in Residence and an award-winning National Geographic Magazine photographer who specializes in marine wildlife subjects and stories about the underwater world

Long before I head to the field on assignment, I spend many hours thinking of the pictures I hope to make. While my job can be described in many different ways, I ultimately see myself as, quite simply, a storyteller. I use images to bring readers into an undersea realm and introduce them to amazing places and extraordinary creatures.

I have dedicated most of my life to perfecting ways of doing this by producing visuals that will engage people and make them want to learn more, to care, and even to protect these realms. In my books and lectures, I often discuss the many challenges of underwater photography, from limited air supplies to the restrictions of making pictures with a camera locked inside a waterproof housing.

On my current assignment, a story about seamounts for National Geographic magazine, these challenges reached epic proportions. While working on Las Gemelas seamount, the majority of my work would be done using cameras that were out of my hands.

The Argo serves as a launching pad for explorations of seamounts

Working with the engineers at National Geographic, deep-sea camera systems were designed and built for both a submersible I would be diving in and for a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). For both systems I use a laptop connected to the camera housing, inside of which is a second computer that allows me to interface with the camera. I can see exactly what the camera sees and have the ability to access controls, but the process is painfully slow.

Photographer Brian Skerry in the submersible during a dive to a seamount. Look for his photos from the expedition in an upcoming issue of National Geographic magazine.

While inside the submersible, I am essentially using the sub as a 7-ton camera housing, working with the expert pilots to position and fine-tune adjustments to get the composition I need. With the ROV, I am inside a cabin on board the ship, staring intently at a computer screen and pressing the shutter release, while my camera is 700 feet [213 meters] below, whizzing around on an 800-pound vehicle.

Over the last seven days, I have repeatedly climbed into the acrylic sphere on the Deep See submersible and descended to the seamount with my laptop to explore this netherworld of permanent darkness, straining my eyes to find subjects in the glow cast by the sub’s lights. When not in the sub, I have sat elbow-to-elbow with the ROV pilot Kevin Joy, working as one to fly the machine and make pictures. And yes, I have also actually gotten into the water at night, using a hand-held camera to photograph tiny, alien-like animals that live in the water column over this deep-water mountain.

While seven days is a very brief time, especially given the gauntlet of technical problems we all encountered, in the end I made a few very cool frames — images that exceeded my expectations, and which I believe will give readers a small glimpse — a window if you will — into the world of undersea mountains.

Check out previous blogs from this expedition by Greg Stone, senior Vice President of Ocean Exploration and Conservation at the New England Aquarium and Conservation International's chief scientist for oceans; Alan Dynner, New England Aquarium Overseer (and former Chairman of Board of Overseers and Trustee); and Dr. Larry Madin, New England Aquarium Overseer and Executive Vice President and Director of Research at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

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