Many people who live around the Great Lakes feel a close connection to the water. They love to swim, sail, fish, or just walk along the shore. Now, their love for the lakes is reaching new depths. A camera is anchored to the bottom of Lake Superior, and images from the camera, called the Benthic Explorer, will soon be available 24 hours a day, on the Internet. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill reports:
Many people who live around the Great Lakes feel a close connection to the water.
They love to swim, sail, fish, or just walk along the shore. Now their love for the lakes
is reaching new depths. A camera is anchored to the bottom of Lake Superior. And images from
the camera, called the Benthic Explorer, will soon be available 24-hours a day, on the Internet.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill reports.
Ben, the Benthic Explorer, looks a lot like R-2 D-2. It’s a rounded pod with flexible legs.
It’s packed with video cameras trained on the benthic layer of the lake – that’s the bottom,
where many animals live most of their lives. Less than a year ago, this gadget was just a gleam
in the eye of Doug Hajicek. Hajicek gained notoriety last year when he put a camera in a bear
den and streamed video from the camera onto the Internet. Now he’s turning his cameras on the
“When we put a camera on each side the lights would not interfere with each other but they’d
intersect. Plus we have a camera on top so we hope to catch a lot of diving birds and of course
fish that swim over the top of it.”
(Sound of ship engine & horn)
Last spring, Hajicek and his colleagues took the Benthic Explorer to its new home in Lake
Superior, a half-hour outside Duluth. On the deck of the research vessel Blue Heron, Ben
squatted among 500 feet of bundled cables that would connect the cameras to shore.
(Sound of anchor chain rattling; radio in pilothouse, “wind coming up.”)
The captain struggles to get the boat anchored in just the right spot. When he finally does,
divers snake the cables through pvc pipe already attached to the lake bottom. Finally, with the wind
picking up and a chilly rain spitting on the crew, a crane dangles the Benthic Explorer over the
side, and Doug Hajicek christens it with a champagne bottle in a plastic bag.
(Sound of pop, and cheers)
“We know a camera like this has never been done, and we hope people will appreciate going on
the internet and seeing what’s happening at the bottom of Lake Superior.”
(Sound of lab (aquarium aerators bubbling))
The Benthic Explorer is anchored just offshore, and it’s connected by cables to this lab in the
basement of Greg Bambanek’s home. Bambanek is a partner with Doug Hajicek; he’s also a
psychiatrist who has created a small business selling a line of scent products designed to
attract fish. He feeds some of his products through a sort of umbilical cord out to the cameras,
and watches what happens.
“We’ve got five monitors, the color shoots through the dome, the next one is infrared for seeing
at night; this one is multifrequency to penetrate, and this one is hyperspectral”
The red and green lights on the explorer penetrate the occasionally murky Lake Superior water,
and the hyperspectral lights can turn various light frequencies off and on, so Bambanek can look
at how fish respond to different colors.
Although Bambanek sells fish attractants, he says he doesn’t intend to use the explorer just to
develop new baits. He says he’s also interested in finding a method of controlling some of the
exotic species that have upset the balance in the St. Louis River as it flows into Lake Superior,
like the river ruffe.
“It’s the largest biomass now in the St. Louis estuary, and it’s eating other fish’s eggs and we
don’t know the full impact that that’s going to have, and it’s spreading down the lake.”
Lloyd Shannon is also interested in exotic species. He’s a researcher at the University of
Minnesota Duluth, and he’s hoping the Benthic Explorer can help track exotic zooplankton as they
begin to populate this end of Lake Superior. Zooplankton are the main food for many fish, and
Shannon and other researchers would like to know more about their migration patterns.
“The camera is in relatively shallow water, about 20 feet, so we don’t see many during the day on
the lenses of the camera. But at night we see tons of them moving in there, so it’s an
opportunity to collect information to determine what conditions make plankton migrate in & off
Right now, most of the information scientists have about zooplankton comes from the painstaking
process of identifying and counting what they bring up when they drag plankton nets behind
research ships. Experimental methods using optical and video technologies still require boat
trips on the lake. So Shannon says the Benthic Explorer can fill a useful research role.
“I think the main advantage is it’s simply in place & working 24 hrs/day, continuously recording
data, so it’s a tool that can continuously measure not only plankton but also the physical &
some of the chemical properties of water, so we can relate plankton abundance to lake itself.”
Soon, all of this will be available to anyone, by way of Discovery-dot-com. Video images
changing every four seconds will show a slightly jerky picture of the zooplankton, the fish, and
anything else that’s on the scene at the bottom of Lake Superior. For the Great Lakes Radio
Consortium, I’m Stephanie Hemphill in Duluth.