Explore the Deep Sea
Tools & Techniques
Can be used to photograph the seafloor thousands of meters below the ocean's surface.
TowCam is an amazing piece of scientific equipment. As its name suggests, it is essentially a camera that is towed behind the ship, photographing the seafloor. But this simple description belies its sophisticated nature: it can take rock and water samples as well as photographs. And the skills needed to operate it are pretty sophisticated too. A game—like joystick and multiple computer screens are involved, so experiencing a TowCam run is a bit like being inside an action-packed video game.
TowCam vital statistics
- Digital deep-sea camera and rock coring system
- Built in 2002 to provide rapid-response imaging and sampling capability
- Made of stainless steel; large sail area of the "tail" provides towing stability
- Powered by four lead-acid batteries
- Useable on many ships (any vessel with a standard winch and cable)
- Towed (by the ship) about 5-7 meters above the seafloor
- Carries bottles for taking water samples ("Niskin" bottles) and equipment for coring rocks
- Can snap about 1800 pictures per 5 hour run—about one every 10 seconds
TowCam movies bring seafloor to life
When photos from TowCam are viewed rapidly in sequence, it's a bit like watching a movie. You might see river-like lava flows, or sediment-laden lava spots making it look like the seafloor needs a good vacuum sweep, or yellowish splotches of sulfide coloring areas of vent fluid flow. Some pictures are of animals: a white anemone sitting by itself on the edge of a cliff face; the gangly arms of a soft coral whipping in the current and siphoning what it needs to live; a scattering of white tubeworms; even brilliant orange anemones that make you wonder why they are so colorful in the permanent darkness of the deep sea.