Video Plankton Recorder helps evaluate
and track the health of the ocean ecosystem.

Red Copepod

Red Copepod by Hopcroft

The Video Plankton Recorder is an underwater microscope camera designed to rapidly capture images of thousands of species of tiny marine plants and animals called plankton while being towed behind a research ship.  Originally designed and built by researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts, this instrument is currently in shared use by the U.S. marine science community supporting plankton research around the world. 

As a result of a collaboration between WHOI and the Marine Science & Technology Foundation (MSTF), the latest revision of this instrument, named VPRII, will have a new color microscope camera installed this summer in place of the currently used black-and-white camera. This upgrade will enable collection of color photos of microscopic marine organisms and will provide researchers with improved ability to characterize and differentiate different plankton species that were previously out of reach.

Dr. Cabell Davis, the Principal Investigator for this collaborative project, said "The pictures of plankton from the VPRII are of great value for the public because they allow researchers to evaluate and track the health of the ocean ecosystem. That is important," he says, "because what is happening with plankton impacts the global carbon and nitrogen cycles as well as having ripple effects up the food chain to fish, marine mammals."

MSTF and WHOI partnered to give the VPRII its new set of eyes: a high-speed color underwater microscope camera that can snap up to 30 digital frames per second, capturing millions of impressions of individual organisms that pass by. The camera uses precision optics that focus on a small volume of illuminated space midway between VPRII’s nose and right arm.  The captured pictures are combined with inputs from other VPRII sensors and then transmitted through the VPRII fiber-optic towing wire to the research ship.  Once onboard, a custom-designed image analysis software is used to post-process the photos, identify the various types of pictured organisms, associate the data with the current VPRII geographical coordinates and depth, and create statistical records and plots characterizing the types of plankton that were found at various locations and depths along the ship's route down to the individual microorganism level.

VPRII has an array of sensors that record temperature, chlorophyll fluorescence (the amount of microscopic plants), salinity, and light levels. VPRII will be receiving another important upgrade, an advanced nitrate sensor. Nitrate is a key nutrient for the phytoplankton, which are microscopic plants that inhabit the upper layer of much of the ocean. As a population, phytoplankton are among the word’s top consumers of carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas – and producers of oxygen.

The millions of images and sensor data points collected by VPRII will aid scientists in explaining changes in the ocean ecosystem, such as unexpected declines in fish populations that communities rely upon for food and income. 

Tentatively in July 2012 the re-fitted VPRII will be deployed aboard the R/V Falkor on a cruise across the Atlantic Ocean departing from Aberdeen, U.K., and arriving at Woods Hole, Massachusetts.  This will be the very first transatlantic cruise for SOI R/V Falkor in her new quality as a research vessel, and it will be conducted as part of the planned 2012 post-refit field trials period.  The priorities of the R/V Falkor 2012 shakedown period are focused on the testing and performance validation of all on-board technical and scientific systems, as well as crew training, and development of standard operating procedures.  Only a small group of scientists from WHOI, University of Rhode Island, and UWA Oceans Institute (Australia) will be joining this cruise to help SOI evaluate multiple aspects of R/V Falkor operational capabilities, including the condition and performance of deck and overboarding equipment, scientific acoustic and computer systems, on-board laboratories, and other research facilities.

“We look forward to utilizing the new, more advanced capabilities of the VPRII this summer, Dr. Davis said.

For more information:

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute
Schmidt Ocean Institute