UW News

May 22, 2013

New documentary on cabled ocean observatory airs on UWTV

UW News

A new half-hour documentary, “Down to the Volcano,” that explores the ocean depths off the Washington coast, airs Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. The video tells the story of the Visions ’11 cruise and gives viewers a taste for what to expect from an expedition this summer. The documentary, created through a collaboration between the UW School of Oceanography and UWTV, airs on Channel 27, with streaming anytime on UWTV‘s website.

Created during the last two years, the video plunges viewers into the experience of building a new type of ocean observatory – one that will use fiber-optic cables to bring electrical power, high-speed Internet and modern instruments to the deep sea. The video takes viewers to one of the sites of the observatory now under construction: Axial Seamount, a volcano some 300 miles off the West Coast and a mile beneath the ocean’s surface.


A deep-sea octopus makes a cameo appearance.UWTV

The documentary includes dramatic footage captured by high-definition video cameras operated by submersible robots. The non-human stars of the documentary include a deep-ocean octopus, bioluminescent jellyfish, and rarely seen microbial “snow blowers” that stream from the underwater volcano.

The goal of the National Science Foundation-funded observatory, part of the national Ocean Observatories Initiative, is “to have a permanent presence in the ocean via a new technology,” said principal investigator John Delaney, a UW professor of oceanography.

But realizing that goal is not an easy task.

“There is no book on how you lay a fiber-optic network over an active submarine volcano,” Delaney said in the video.

There are tense moments as the team uses underwater robots to survey the site of the observatory. One scene shows a cable placed across a volcanic hydrothermal site while the robotic arm measures the temperature inside and confirms it is much hotter than the cable can survive. (The contractor has since replaced that section of cable and moved it to another location.)

smoking caldera

A volcanic caldera at Axial Seamount appears in the UWTV documentary.UWTV

“The ocean really is the last unexplored frontier on the planet,” said Deborah Kelley, a UW professor of oceanography. “When we dive in places, even when we’ve been there before, chances are we’re going to make a discovery.”

The observatory will replace those yearly dives with a constant virtual window on the marine life and volcanic eruptions deep below the ocean’s surface.

The documentary also features Giora Prokurowski, a project scientist and UW alumnus; work from Mark Stoermer, who does visualizations for the project; and former educational director Allison Fundis. Communications coordinator Nancy Penrose co-produced the documentary.

One of the purposes of the 2011 cruise was to find sites for the observatory’s giant electrical outlets. Those outlets were installed last summer by a telecommunications contractor. This year Delaney, Kelley and their team of researchers and students will sail from Seattle to install the low-voltage electrical outlets, lay smaller cables and attach sensors that will, in a few months, begin to send real-time observations back to land-based computers.

Live video and updates will be posted throughout July and August at the project’s website. The observatory is scheduled to be commissioned and fully operational by early 2015.