Help Scientists Explore the Seafloor

Help Scientists Explore the Seafloor

Kate Yandell
Published: 10/10/2012

Caption: A sea scallop and a monkfish caught in the camera’s lens. (From HabCam Group, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute)


I spent this past holiday weekend scouring the bottom of the seafloor for signs of life. East of Nantucket, I spotted seven plump, orange scallops. Near the coast of Gloucester, two pale anemones had anchored themselves 261 feet beneath the ocean’s surface. I found an eel, a fish, a hermit crab, sand dollars, and snails. I did this all without leaving my apartment.


Seafloor Explorer is a new interactive website created by scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) in collaboration with web developers on the Zooniverse team at the Adler Planetarium. It is now enlisting the public’s help to sift through photographs of the ocean floor along the Eastern seaboard’s continental shelf.


Visitors to the website classify groundcover and tag scallops, sea stars, crustaceans, and fish. The photos were collected using HabCam, an underwater camera towed by a boat that loops around the ocean floor taking six shots per second.


To ensure that volunteers’ identifications are correct, multiple users view each image. Including repeat views, users have annotated more than 760,000 images so far.


Researchers will use the data from Seafloor Explorer to better understand the ecology and distribution of seafloor organisms, explains WHOI biologist Amber York. Scallop fishery managers and fishermen will use this data to guide their use of the resource.


York also hopes the project will provide information about some of the ocean’s rarer species as the site’s users stumble upon them. She has put out a call for users to look out for a narrow tube worm which may turn out to be a previously unrecorded species, nicknamed the “convict worm” for its distinctive black and white stripes.


“I think that one of the reasons people are interested is that these are organisms they can’t go to the beach and see,” York said. “The fishermen we collaborate with, they’ve been fishing the bottom their whole lives, and this is the first time they actually saw the bottom.”