Risky Filming: Underwater With 3000 Volts of Live Power

Oceanographer Dr. Robert Ballard is on a global quest to unravel one of the world’s biggest mysteries – where life on Earth began. Ballard suspects life may have gotten started where hot rock and water collide in one of the world’s most seemingly hostile environments – active volcanoes deep within the ocean. He tracks teams of scientists, across the world’s oceans, as they deploy robotic submersibles at deep sea volcanic rifts. He takes his own research ship to a dangerous undersea volcano in the Mediterranean, and hunts for answers amid hissing sulfur vents in Iceland and bubbling beakers at a NASA laboratory. Could the seething geologic heart of our planet actually have given birth to life on Earth? The following is a production journal from the Alien Deep crew. 

By Jennifer Shoemaker

Of all the things I’ve learned working Alien Deep, the one fact that I find most mind-boggling is that we have better maps of the Moon and Mars than we do of the seafloor of our own planet.  We know what every valley on Mars looks like, we have analyzed every pore on the face of the Man in the Moon, but there are volcanoes the size of Mount St. Helens and valleys the size of the Grand Canyon beneath the ocean that we have never gotten a really good look at– and countless other features that we haven’t even yet discovered.

Right now, there are satellites whizzing around the Moon, Mars and Earth, taking incredibly precise measurements of these worlds. However, no satellites can see through the deep ocean to the seafloor.  Amazingly, scientists can infer the general shape of the seafloor by looking at miniscule height changes in the sea surface. By comparing satellite sea surface data with the relatively small number of depth soundings we’ve gathered from ships, mapmakers make an estimation of that the seafloor looks like.

Ships can map small swaths of seafloor using sonar, but to really see it you have to get down there. Pressure-ready cameras can be plonked down on the seafloor to get a static view or dragged on sleds towed beneath a ship, but if you see something exciting, there is no way to maneuver these cameras with any precision to get a close-up look. Manned submersibles get people down to the seafloor to see things firsthand, but there are only a few such submersibles in the world. The workhorses of deep sea exploration are the remotely operated vehicle, or ROVs. They are basically giant robots on very long leashes.

On the ship Celtic Explorer, the residence workhorse is the Holland I. It’s a  3 ½ ton (3240kg), ten foot long (3018 mm) monster rated to ten thousand feet (3000 meters.)

It can also kill you. When the Holland I is in the water and fully powered, its 3000 volts of live power mean that if you touched it, you’d get electrocuted.

That poses a big problem to us, here on the deck of the Celtic Explorer. For our show Alien Deep, we need not only the video that the Holland 1 delivers, but we need to show people what that ROV looks like zooming around underwater, in action. Normally, you could drop a diver with an underwater camera over to get the shots you need, but one careless kick and the diver would get a nasty – and possibly fatal – shock from the ROV.

After weighing the risk, series producer Gary Johnstone decided it was just too dangerous to try to film the ROV with a diver. So we decided to film one robot with another – a mini-ROV the size the size of a microwave oven.  Biologist Adrian Glover of the Natural History Museum, London flew over to lend us a hand, using the opportunity to test a new mini-ROV he and his colleagues at the museum are using in their research.

It  was crunch time on the Celtic Explorer, everyone moving fast to get all the ship’s systems and scientific instruments ready for departure. When Adrian are aboard with his mini-ROV, however, everyone stopped to check it out. The pilots of the big ROV all offered to drive it. One of the scientists called it the cutest ROV he’d ever seen. They were all pretty excited to use it to film the Holland I – they too did not have any shots of the Holland I in the water. The team decided to take the big ROV out into Galway Bay for its test dive tomorrow, and Adrian and our Director of Photography discussed about how to film it.  In Galway Harbor, Adrian dropped the mini-ROV over the side for a test swim. It worked like a charm.

The next morning dawned perfect – calm and sunny. But as I walk up the dock toward the ship, the deck leader, leaning on the railing, levels a heavy look on me.

“The ROV’s down.”

I didn’t understand. The little thing zipped through the water flawlessly yesterday. “How did our mini-ROV stop working?”, I asked.

“Not that one,” he replied, pointing over his shoulder with a thumb. “The BIG one.”

The full-sized ROV – the one the entire mission hinged on – had blown a transformer. The repair would take at least a day, completely dashing our plan of shooting it before the departure. Ah, well. If there’s one thing that people working on the ocean and in television have most in common, it’s that we’re used to things not going as planned.

We scrapped the mini-ROV shoot and took to the air instead. The Celtic Explorer still had some sonar tests to do prior to departure, so we filmed it traveling out through the Bay en route to deeper water for the tests.  The ROV technicians didn’t get a moment’s rest, however. In the aerial footage, you can see them scrambling madly on the back deck, trying to fix the Holland I so it would be ready for the “real” departure.

And ready it was. When, several days later, the ship arrived at its target in the Mid-Atlantic, the Holland I delivered the first look at an unexplored part of the our home planet. Its camera recorded sixty-foot-tall chimneys belching out superheated water – all on the mid-ocean ridge, the single largest geologic feature on our planet. So although we were not able to film the big ROV in action moving around underwater, the ROV sure saw some great action.

Tune in to Alien Deep: It’s Alive at 9P and don’t miss the 4 hours of back-t0-back premieres starting at 7P.