Sea-ing is believing

Sea-ing is believing

Using new technology, researchers at the University of Victoria are traveling to the deepest reaches of the ocean-and getting an up-close look at a new and mysterious environment
March 1, 2005
Until recently, Verena Tunnicliffe had a "short", annoying problem.

Tunnicliffe wanted to take pictures of the ocean floor—at about 5,000 metres below the waves. She had everything she needed to get the job done. A big boat. A great waterproof camera. A remote-control submersible ready to make the dive. And a team of smart and capable researchers waiting with anticipation. So what was the problem? Her cable wasn’t long enough.

The average ocean depth is 3,800 metres. Until recently, that was as deep as Tunnicliffe and her team of researchers were able to travel in their quest to explore and document the mysterious world far below the waves.

Now, with the help of a unique new fibre-optic cable attached to a state-of-the-art submersible, Tunnicliffe and other researchers are traveling deeper into the ocean than ever before—as deep as 5,000 metres. And getting a front-row seat for all the action!

“Half of the ocean—or one third of the planet—has been barely touched by people actually going there, working on it, and looking at it,” says Verena Tunnicliffe, a Professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Victoria’s School of Earth & Ocean Sciences. “This part of the world has the biggest ecosystem and holds the biggest repository of sediments. Being able to reach those depths is vital.”

The fibre-optic cable is attached to the Remotely Operated Platform for Ocean Science (ROPOS), a submersible, deep-sea machine that plunges into ocean waters, retrieves samples, and captures images using a video camera. Before 2000, ROPOS was only able to descend to depths of 3,000 metres. With CFI funding for a new state-of-the-art fibre-optic cable, ROPOS is now able to drop to a depth of 5,000 metres and can send back crisper images thanks to improved data transmission.


ROPOS is also being upgraded with new "mid-depth" components, capable of working to 2500 metres. This system will be lighter, smaller, and easier to deploy on more ships, in more worldwide locations. With improved fibre-optics, increased bandwidth will be available for video cameras and other instruments.

In operation for over 12 years, ROPOS, doesn’t require human beings to travel under water. Instead, a team of scientists gathers around a ship-board computer console that’s connected to ROPOS on the ocean floor. A cable enables them to view the ocean as if they were actually there. The set-up is more advantageous than a manned submersible, where only two or three scientists go into the water.

With ROPOS, everyone gets a chance to explore. With a traditional manned submersible, scientists may pass by something not realizing its significance because it’s not within their specialty or field of study. But because ROPOS scientists on the ship come from many disciplines (geologists, biologists etc.), they can identify features worth further investigation. “It’s wonderful because you have a truly interdisciplinary group trying to solve problems,” says Tunnicliffe.

ROPOS has many tools at its disposal. Two manipulator arms collect samples that the submersible brings back to the surface. Digital information from cameras, sonars and many attached instruments is delivered in real time through the fibre-optic cable to scientists on the surface.

On the ship, a data management and archiving system sorts the information sent from ROPOS. This new system saves time. Instead of saving information on a disc and processing it on the surface, the master computer receives files and organizes the data at the end of each dive. Scientists can also review the dive afterwards on a CD-ROM.

Scientists are currently using ROPOS to look for new energy resources on the ocean floor. For instance, methane, found in gas hydrates, could be decades away from use. “Learning all we can about these more accessible deposits will help us figure out whether the gas can be extracted economically and safely,” says Ross Chapman, a Professor at the School of Earth and Ocean Science at the University of Victoria and the Director of the University’s Centre for Earth and Ocean Research.



The conservation of known marine life and the discovery of new species is an important part of ROPOS’ exploration. In fact, ROPOS finds new life almost every time it descends into the ocean. At the end of 2004, it explored a site near the Fraser River that was covered with glass sponges. The sponges form reefs that are 20 to 30 metres high, unlike anywhere else in the world.

ROPOS is also exploring new potential energy sources found in methane hydrates. Using ROPOS in 2002, Ross Chapman discovered the largest deposit of methane hydrates ever found on the sea floor off the coast of Canada.

Although Japan and France have similar submersibles, Canada’s ROPOS reaches the deepest at 5,000 metres. And that puts it in great demand around the world. Researchers from other countries such as Germany, the United States, and Britain have teamed up with Canada on a number of expeditions—providing the ship, while Canadians provide ROPOS.

A recent expedition to Guam, funded by the U.S. Ocean Exploration Program, was a real eye opener for researchers from both sides of the border. “We found things that no one has ever seen before,” says Tunnicliffe. “There’s so much that we don’t know about what lies deep in the ocean. In an underwater environment, organisms and chemistry work differently than they do on land.”


ROPOS is owned and operated by the Canadian Scientific Submersible Facility (CSSF), a private non-profit company. The CSSF provides a deep-sea presence for research purposes. Along with the CFI, the CSSF has provided funding for ROPOS’ cable and data system, and has aided with Ross Chapman's work on methane hydrates.

ROPOS provides a myriad of academic and educational opportunities for many disciplines at the University of Victoria. Dozens of graduate science students have been to sea with ROPOS. As well, a mechanical engineering Masters project has used ROPOS to study how to reduce the effects of ship motion.

Learn More

Discover where ROPOS has traveled and find out more about its future expeditions: