The life aquatic
Marcus Shirley (left) with Professor Kerry Howell (right)

Fish hide among delicate corals and sponges down in the deep of the north-east Atlantic Ocean. Look close, and you can see urchins, anemones, and myriads of other creatures living among them.

That these pictures are among the first to be taken of the life colonising the seamounts in the Marine Protected Areas, some 300km or so west of Scotland, frames their scientific significance. But what makes this even more remarkable is the story behind the camera – how a Plymouth University photography graduate, working with a renowned marine biologist, designed and built a new system that could revolutionise working in the deep sea forever.

When Marcus Shirley graduated from his photography degree at Plymouth in 2009, he knew exactly what he was going to do next. Having originally rejected the chance to study engineering at Warwick, Marcus was keen to revisit his love of electronics and combine it with the photography skills he’d learned on his course.

“My brother taught me to solder at the age of nine, and by 14 I was flying gliders,” he says. “It seems natural in hindsight that I’d become interested in aerial photography, and while I was studying for my degree, I built a kite camera and was designing radio control systems.

“So when we were encouraged to look for work experience, I contacted a local aerial photography and filming company, Hovercam. I went for an interview and took along my kite-camera rig. They said ‘Forget about the work experience, what are you doing when you graduate?’ The answer was, of course, working full time for them.”

In an age before drones, Marcus worked with gas turbine-powered, radio-controlled mini helicopters, and spent much of his time in the company’s workshop. He was also asked to help out at a sister company that built electronic control systems for yacht manufacturers, and it was during this time that the idea of working in the marine sector began to take root.

“It’s always good to look at things from a different angle, and that is what aerial photography does,” Marcus says. “Underwater photography operates on similar principles – it’s a camera, a protective housing, and a joystick – just a different set of environmental challenges.”

In 2010, Marcus saw an advert for a taster day on remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to be held at the Underwater Centre in Fort William, Scotland. He jumped on his motorbike, rode for an entire day, and took the course. When he returned to Plymouth, he searched the internet for local ROV companies, and found one, Hydrabotix, just 300 yards away from his house. He contacted the owner, and three weeks later he was working in the Caspian Sea.

“It was an incredible baptism – I was on my own and very much in at the deep end,” he says. “But over time, I became experienced in operating underwater vehicles, and have had the chance to work around the world, including on the Costa Concordia salvage operation.”

Dr Kerry Howell, Associate Professor in Marine Ecology, in the Faculty of Science and Engineering, has been investigating deep-sea environments in British territorial waters for more than 15 years. Her expertise in mapping and surveying, and finding hitherto undiscovered expanses of cold water coral, has played a crucial role in providing evidence to government bodies such as the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC).

“For a long time I have been interested in getting better quality pictures in my work,” Kerry says. “I have been using underwater cameras since 2005, but they were often atrocious. The issue is that if you want to identify animals, you need high definition video, but the cameras that produce that level of quality cost £10,000 to £20,000 each and we didn’t have that kind of budget.”

Marcus Shirley (left) with Professor Kerry Howell (right)

How does the DS2 work?

Unlike more expensive autonomous and manually operated robots, or those cameras that rely on fragile fibre-optic cables, the DS2 plugs into a research vessel’s copper CTD cable and can then be lowered to depths of up to 3,000m. It has various sensors on board, including a CTD and altimeter. The vehicle is ‘flown’ by an operator at the surface controlling the cable winch so that it doesn’t strike the seabed. The camera records high-definition video, which is saved onto its solid state hard drive. It also feeds a standard-definition video signal back up the cable that can be viewed in real time, and once it breaks the surface, it can wirelessly send the HD video footage and sensor data to the operator.

Kerry met Marcus in 2011 through the Marine Institute after he did some filming on shipwrecks, using the University’s ROV, for a programme on Channel 5. By now, he had set up his own company, Mr ROV. With some funding provided by the institute, she asked if he might be able to build her an underwater camera that could assist her in her research. This he did, using a GoPro camera, a secondhand titanium housing, some control electronics, and an extra-large battery.

“We tested it on a cruise off Scotland using Marine Scotland’s vessel Scotia,” Kerry says. “We bolted it to a camera frame and put it into the water. The only issue was that part of the frame was in shot, so the light from the camera reflected off it, which caused motion blur. But we learned a great deal from that test.”

A better low-light sensor immediately improved the design, but then Kerry set Marcus a new challenge: could he build a system that would enable a scientist to view the pictures in real time at the surface? Oh, and do it on a budget of just £8,000? His solution was ingenious.

“I designed the frame and sourced second-hand lights,” Marcus said. “But the question of how to relay pictures from the camera to the surface required a different philosophy. It required cabling.”

“Every research ship has a CTD (conductivity, temperature, depth) cable,” adds Kerry. “Our vision was to plug into that cable using a set of boxes procured from a specialist company. It was a low-cost but hugely innovative solution.”

The duo took the equipment to Belgium and hooked it up to a 2,000m cable on dry land, and it worked. Within four months – now, mid 2014 –Marcus had created a prototype of Deep Search 1, which he and Kerry took out on the Belgica research vessel to the Southwest Canyons, a Marine Protected Area off the UK. Again, it worked, and the DS1 secured some good imagery from depths of up to 600m.

It was enough for Kerry to write a Grant Capital Equipment bid to the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), which was duly granted. With funding of nearly £80,000 from NERC, Marcus replaced the camera in the DS1 with an HD CCTV camera with controllable shutter speed, ethernet capabilities, a solid state hard drive and, critically, a new system allowing a digital (rather than analogue) video signal to be sent up a much longer CTD cable.

In May 2015, they tested it again on board the Belgica, and Marcus made a final round of tweaks following that, installing new lights and better quality lasers that would enable Kerry to more accurately measure the size of the animals captured on film. The DS2 was ready.

“It’s incredibly portable, and is designed to fit on one Euro-palette,” Marcus says, of the 255-kilo, 1.2m-by- 80cm DS2. “That’s part of its design ethos – it’s modular, so we could strip it down and use the components separately, or add additional sensors. And, remarkably, it’s a product that’s been ‘made in Plymouth’ – so many of the components come from the South West; it’s a testament to the expertise that resides in this city.”

With support from the Marine Innovation Centre, part of the University’s GAIN network, the commercial potentials of the camera are now being explored alongside its own exploratory adventures. One of those came in May, when Kerry and Marcus went out on the NERC-funded RRS James Cook to look at seamounts off the west coast of Scotland, as part of the Deep Links project that Kerry leads with the University of Oxford, the JNCC, and the British Geological Survey. Much of the work there was conducted with cutting-edge autonomous robots, but they also tested DS2, and despite some technical and logistical limitations imposed by the vessel itself, they were able to obtain excellent imagery at depths of 500m.

“It’s the closest thing we have to going into space,” says Kerry of the challenge of mapping the deep. “In fact, it’s harder to do and we know even less about what’s down there. But thanks to technology like DS2, we now have a cost-effective means to map these undiscovered environments so that we can better manage and protect them.

“And having your own deep-sea equipment is so incredibly valuable because it means Plymouth can bring something to any collaboration, and provides that platform to work with others. Very few universities have anything like this, and we’re already receiving enquiries.”

Marcus recently provided a guest lecture to current Plymouth photography students, trying to sum up the remarkable twists and turns of his career to-date: one that has taken him around the world and back, to altitude and the depths of the ocean, and through a number of high-profile institutions such as Sea Life, San Diego State University and the National Marine Aquarium.

“It was certainly interesting to sum up all I’ve done in 30 minutes,” he reflects. “What I tried to explain is that they need not solely think about careers in photography. Some of the jobs they will go on to do haven’t even been invented yet.”