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The Pacific

Web-linked observatory will make deep sea visible to all Add to ...

The first phase of an Internet-linked sea-floor observatory that will allow scientists and the public to get an unprecedented view of marine life in the Pacific Ocean off Canada's west coast was completed this week.

"Five nodes have been installed and [are]working," said Chris Barnes, program director of NEPTUNE, or North-East Pacific Time-Series Underwater Networked Experiments.

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Led by the University of Victoria, researchers from 12 Canadian universities are building the world's first underwater observatory connected to the Internet. Once it's complete, anyone will be able to view the sea floor as easily as surfing a website. Marine scientists will be able to use it to run experiments from labs and universities in any corner of the world.

But the process is lengthy and complicated. In the first phase, the target was to connect an 800-kilometre loop of undersea cable laid two years ago to a series of deep-sea observatories.

The five "nodes," as they are called, each the size of a living room and weighing more than 13 tonnes, were lowered to the seabed 300 kilometres off the west coast of Vancouver Island in a process that took nearly two months. It was completed earlier this week.

High-voltage, high-bandwidth undersea lines carry power and data for the unmanned laboratories, which are equipped with instruments that will enable scientists and the public to study what goes on in the deep sea.

A crew of 70 people on two 10,000-tonne ships worked on lowering the nodes into position. The cable ship would come into Victoria to get a node, bring it to the site where the crew would wire it up, and lower it using an onboard crane. The shallowest site is 100 metres below the surface; the deepest, 2,660 metres.

The process has not gone altogether smoothly. After six weeks of work, the five nodes were to have been in place by Aug. 17. Poor weather and a fault in one of the nodes that meant it had to be hoisted back up, fixed, and lowered again delayed the installation by a week.

"It's challenging to lower it down to these depths," Dr. Barnes said.

The next phase, involving lowering additional instruments and testing the nodes, has started. It will be at least November by the time every component of the observatory is in position and testing can begin, Dr. Barnes said.

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