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Deep Sea Bioluminescent Corals Captured for the First Time in Color HD Video

The first color HD video of deep-ocean bioluminescence in Hawaiian bamboo corals  faithfully shows the behaviors described by Oceanographer Sylvia Earle and others decades ago — until now never seen by anyone other than those who made the journey 380 meters (nearly a quarter of a mile) under the surface of the sea. DOER Marine collaborated with Canon USA to successfully capture the moving images in near complete darkness.

me20fsh-3q-d courtesy of Canon    With an equivalent sensitivity of more than 4,000,000 ISO, Canon’s ME20F-SH camera is designed to shoot high-definition full-color video in extremely low light, such as hundreds of feet under the sea. Photo courtesy of Canon.

In 1979 Dr. Sylvia Earle made a record-setting dive to 1,250 feet off the coast of Oahu in Hawaii in the “Jim suit”. This is how she described the bamboo corals: “When I touched them, rings of light pulsed up and down between base and tip.”

Pisces submersible pilots Terry Kerby and Max Cremer along with deepwater coral scientist Frank Parrish have all also observed this phenomenon themselves. They have told the story verbally, but have never been able to capture it crisply and in color on video. Even with advanced silicone-intensified low-light cameras, images were always gray and indistinct.

Subsea Technologist Ian Griffith and I first saw the Canon ME20F-SH camera at a trade show in 2015. We immediately saw the potential it had for capturing bioluminescence at depth. DOER, the company I manage, had made the first ABS-class underwater camera housings for cine cameras and lenses, and we believed the ME20F-SH could utilize the same equipment. Calvin Anderson and Carl Peer from Canon USA worked to make a unit available to DOER for evaluation and testing.

The ME20F-SH camera runs through a battery of tests at DOER in Alameda CA. Photograph courtesy of DOER Marine
The ME20F-SH camera runs through a battery of tests at DOER in Alameda CA. Photograph courtesy of DOER Marine

In July 2016, Dr. Earle received a grant from the National Geographic Society to return to the same deepwater coral beds she visited in 1979 for comparative observations of deep water biota. (Read more about her 2016 expedition: Sylvia Earle Revisits Hawaii’s Deep Frontier) An obvious opportunity presented itself to test and prove the value of the ME20F-SH.

Submersible pilot Max Cremer supervises student interns loading the ME20F-SH to the Pisces IV sub. Photograph courtesy of DOER Marine.
Submersible pilot Max Cremer supervises student interns loading the ME20F-SH to the Pisces IV sub. Photograph courtesy of DOER Marine.

On the first dive the camera was operated by a high school biology intern. He captured images of the corals pulsing light exactly as Dr. Earle had described. On the second dive a University of LaVerne photography student operated the camera and captured images both from Pisces IV and images of Pisces V stimulating the corals.

Screen grab of video of bamboo coral, captured in ambient light by the Canon ME20F-SH camera.
Screen grab of video of bamboo coral, captured in ambient light by the Canon ME20F-SH camera.

The story of capturing the images will be featured in a documentary special called Blue Centennial, which follows the National Geographic Blue Centennial Expeditions with young explorers using photography to reveal the unseen American wilderness below the ocean surface.

This camera has the capacity to capture images never seen in photography before. It is capable of being operated both by those with a science background and experienced photographers alike.

Dr. Parrish accompanied both students on their respective dives in Pisces IV while Dr. Earle was in Pisces V. Having both experts there to witness and participate in this remarkable first documentation of bioluminescence in the deep sea has left them eager to see what the ME20F-SH can do when fitted into the ABS-class housings. DOER continues to work with the ME20F-SH in its test tank, experimenting with a variety of lenses, recording devices and camera ports to unlock the full potential that this camera holds for subsea science and exploration.

Liz Taylor has been with DOER (Deep Ocean Exploration and Research) from its inception. Elevated to President and CEO in 1994, she handles business development, partnerships, and special projects. She has more than 20 years of experience in expeditionary logistics and support. In her earlier career, Taylor held an executive position with a leading ROV-manufacturing firm. There, she was customer liaison for complex builds including those for the Egyptian, Brazilian, Swedish, and Singapore navies, DR1002 manned submersibles, and Mantero ROV. Many of her former clients followed her to DOER, and continue to rely upon DOER to provide innovative solutions for challenging environments.

A graduate of UC Berkeley, Taylor has participated in more than 60 scientific exploration projects. She has authored a number of technical and natural history articles and white papers. She is a member of the Marine Technology Society and The Explorers Club.