TV monitors aboard the Lady Ann showed nothing but blue water for a few moments and then suddenly were filled with images of fish. First seen were the spadefish, then the amberjacks, butterfly fish and on and on. By the time the ROV reached the bottom 100 feet below, the biologists were cheering.
The clarity of the video was stunning. Snapper and porgies swam in front of the camera like it wasn't even there. A brilliant blue and green and yellow queen angelfish stared into the lens inquisitively. A whopper of a warsaw grouper filled the entire screen.
For the scientists, the University of South Alabama's ROV (Remote Operated Vehicle) provides an intimate connection to the underwater creatures they study.
They can see fish and corals in their natural habitat without scuba diving. The ROV is not a whole lot larger than a shoebox. And fish don't seem to shy from it a bit.
"Sometimes the triggerfish will come right up and try to bite on the lens," said Clark, who operates an identical camera owned by the state Marine Resources Division. "I used to do a lot of the scuba diving for the state, checking on reefs and stuff. The camera is a lot more versatile."
Built by a company called Seabotix Inc., the tiny submarines are connected to the boat by hundreds of feet of sturdy umbilical cord. The cameras have lights, lasers, an array of thrusters for propulsion, and tiny robot arms for grabbing things.
Frankie Allbritten, a Marine Resources biologist's aide who "flew" the submarine while onboard the Lady Ann, said it is a lot like playing a video game. Watching his hands work a small joystick and engage the thrusters, lasers and lights by pushing buttons on a small control panel, it did, indeed, seem like playing a video game.
"In a game, you are moving your little character or motorcycle around on the screen. We're moving the ROV," Allbritten said. "We have to deal with different currents on each site, and each reef presents its own hazards in terms of things the ROV could hang up on."
At one of the reefs visited on this trip, the umbilical cord wrapped around a pair of concrete posts coming off the reef. For the briefest of moments, Allbritten and Clark worried the $70,000 camera was seriously stuck. Both were all smiles when it came free and returned to the surface under its own power.
"You don't want to be the guy who loses the camera," Allbritten said moments after the orange submersible popped up at the water's surface.
Clark said the learning curve wasn't too steep.
"We took it in the swimming pool, flew it around in there for a little while, learned to navigate with the sonar. Then, we took it offshore and hoped like the dickens," Clark said.
The sonar on the camera greatly increases its utility. Without it, several of the reefs visited on the trip would not have been found due to poor visibility underwater.
"The main reason we have that camera is hurricanes. We'll go out and try to ground truth our reefs after a hurricane," Clark said. "If we can't find something where it is supposed to be, we set the camera on the bottom and start pinging with the sonar until we find it."
He said the reefs often get pushed hundreds of feet by heavy currents during big storms.
"We publish the new numbers so the fishermen can find them again," Clark said. "We can check out 20 sites in a day no problem. When we were diving, it was three or four spots a day, tops. We can also check on the reefs in terms of whether they are getting encrusted with corals and bryozoans."
For the snapper experiments being conducted by the University of South Alabama, the camera has become an important component.
"The crowning glory of everything we are doing is the video. We can make videos to show people what we are seeing and what is going on. They don't have to just take my word for it," said Bob Shipp, USA's head of marine sciences.
To see underwater footage from the secret research reefs in the Gulf of Mexico, go to: http://videos.al.com/mobile-press-register/2009/05/exploring_the_secret_reefs.html