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.”