In-depth look at underwater video cameras: history and uses

Underwater Video Cameras: See (and Explore) New Frontiers

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According to the U.S. Department of the Interior,  approximately 71% of our planet is water – and an in-depth 2012 study estimates that 700,000 to one million species live in our oceans, with one-third to two-thirds not yet named or even described. This means there are literally hundreds of thousands of marine life species waiting for someone to capture them on video and share them with the world.

Here are some more recent species captured by underwater video cameras that, while not newly discovered, have been shown in a whole new way:

Sharks at Night

This stunning short film focuses on Joe Romeiro, a man with a passion for shark conservation

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. The first movie he’d ever seen was Jaws, so he had previously considered sharks to be vicious, man-eating creatures. “But,” he shares, “you understand what you confront,” and so Romeiro began filming the mesmerizing, exquisite and elusive shark at night; by doing so, he changed his own perception of these magnificent creatures and he invites us to share in that experience.

Coral Unfolding

Although this incredible piece wasn’t filmed with a video camera, Daniel Stoupin created a video using more than 150,000 individual shots taken by an underwater camera. The result? We can now see “marine invertebrates in action” as they unfold, creating sheer and utter beauty.

Swarm of Red Crabs

Here’s a different kind of beauty. Marine biologists saw a cloud of silt in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Panama, which puzzled them. It ended up being thousands of red crabs “swarming like insects.” The crabs, reddish-orange in color and resembling mini lobsters, were 1,165-1,263 feet (355-385 meters) below the surface, so tightly packed together that the highest density was 78 crabs per square meter, which is approximately seven crabs per square foot! Take a look at this form of marine life, never before seen this far south and see why the biologists were so enthralled.

Underwater cameras, including video cameras, have clearly played a crucial role in our learning about marine life and in conservation efforts. This is a fairly new phenomenon, as photographers have faced numerous challenges in filming underwater. Here’s more about the evolution of this endeavor.

History of Underwater Cameras

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The earliest known successful scientific approach to taking underwater photos occurred in 1856 when William Thompson attached a camera to a pole and photographed plant life from the bottom of a shallow spot in Dorset waters in the United Kingdom. This photo no longer exists and several decades passed before another serious attempt took place.

Significant challenges existed with underwater photography, including cumbersome diving equipment – and clumsy photography equipment, too, for that matter. And, even if a photographer overcame those difficulties, images needed long exposure times to become pictures, a major challenge when reliable diving gear didn’t exist.

Enter Louis Boutan. He was a French marine zoologist who wanted to capture marine life on film, but was stymied because of the lack of available technology. He began experimenting with underwater photography in the 1890s at the Arago Marine Laboratory at Banyuls-sur-Mer on the Mediterranean coast of his homeland. Fortunately, his brother was an engineer and worked alongside him.

Like most inventors and innovators, Boutan tried many methods of underwater photography that didn’t work, including “encasing his cameras in strongboxes (including barrels); he tried completely flooding the interior of cameras.” Ultimately, he created watertight equipment that could withstand pressure but it was so huge that it took three men to lift the camera – and that wasn’t counting the battery-powered underwater lights that he also needed. He began taking pictures in shallow water – and in water with depths up to 164 feet, wearing a primitive diving suit.

Boutan sometimes stayed underwater for as long as three hours to capture images on film, which led to nitrogen narcosis, also known as the rapture of the deep. This condition alters consciousness and creates a condition that’s similar to drunkenness. To remedy this, he eventually used a magnesium powder flash to speed up the picture-taking process. You can find examples of Bouton’s work here. If you’d like to really explore early photography, you can subscribe to a site,, for $8 a month.

Boutan’s work was significant and further advanced the studies of marine zoology, among other scientific disciplines. His photography, though, was unable to capture the rainbow of hues found in marine life – but that was remedied in 1923 when Dr. William H. Longley shot a color photo of a hogfish off of the Florida Keys, using new technology; he did so with Charles Martin, a National Geographic staff photographer. You can see this photo here; using “pounds of highly explosive magnesium flash powder for underwater illumination, the pair pioneered underwater photography.”

From Underwater Cameras to Underwater Video Cameras

The earliest underwater video is generally accepted to have been filmed in 1940 by Austrian biologist and diver, Hans Hass; it premiered in Berlin in 1942. Titled Pirsch unter Wasser (Stalking under Water), it was 16 minutes long and was shown in theaters as a preview to main events. Later on, the film was extended when additional footage was taken and, in 1947, he released an 84-minute underwater film, Menschen unter Haien (Men among Sharks).

You can see historic underwater video with Hans Hass here:

The first full-length, full-color underwater documentary was Folco Quilici’s Sesto Continente (The Silent World), with the title a derivative of The Silent World: A Story of Undersea Discovery and Adventure by Jacques-Yves Cousteau.

Enjoy part of the film here:

Technology has advanced, almost beyond imagination, since these early days – and here are some of today’s cutting-edge underwater video cameras. Interestingly enough, one key way that they are being used . . . is to uncover the mysteries of history!

Underwater Video Cameras and Marine Archaeology

Underwater photography plays a central role whenever a shipwreck is found, because it “allows us to discover the sites without physically going there, records the intimate details of the site for future generations when the wreck may have been moved or suffered further deterioration, and allows scientific study away from the wreck site using high-resolution images.”

Here’s more insight from a marine archaeologist:

You may wonder about the value of studying shipwrecks, but it’s much more important than you may think. An article from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) explains it this way: “Archeologists use shipwrecks to understand the past. Shipwrecks may be connected to important historical events. People working to protect the marine environment can learn important lessons from shipwrecks about how currents, weather, technology and human error can damage the environment. Additionally, shipwrecks can provide hard surfaces that may be associated with a high biomass of biologically diverse organisms for study.”

The discovery of one shipwreck (and its recovery), the Mardi Gras, became the subject of a one-hour film. This ship was discovered in the deep, more than 4,000 feet below the surface in the Gulf of Mexico. The film was created by Rick Allen of Nautilus Productions; this ship is believed to have sunk more than 200 years ago – but its identity and origin are unknown. The name of “Mardi Gras” comes from a gas pipeline located in the region.

Participants in the study and salvage of this ship include experts from the Texas A&M Department of Oceanography, the Center for Maritime Archaeology, and the Minerals Management Service of the Department of the Interior.  These participants lived on a boat for three weeks, working around the clock and documenting all salvage activities. This was the first academic exaction of a gulf-based deep water shipwreck (2008); the pressure at this depth was 1,700 pounds per cubic inch, so remote operated vehicles (ROVs) were used to retrieve sunken objects.

At least 600 artifacts were found, including:

• Six-foot cannon
• Cooking stove
• Wine and rum bottles
• Large stoneware jugs and plates
• Captain’s spyglass
• Glass forms of hourglasses, with sand inside them still intact and dry
• Swords and muskets (this box could not be retrieved)

Questions that the filmmakers hoped to answer include “What is the real identity of the ship? What flag did she fly? Who were her crew members? Was she a pirate vessel or a merchant ship? And what were the circumstances of her demise in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, 40 miles off the coast of modern-day Louisiana?”

Retrieve a clip of the film here:

Modern Day Education through Marine Video Cameras

One prime example of viewers being educated and entertained through marine video is Deadliest Catch. Discovery Channel airs this program, produced by Original Productions, and shares real-life challenges and success stories as fishing vessels navigate the Bering Sea in search of crab. The show’s title refers to the risks involved in this type of work and the show first aired on April 12, 2005. It has been shown in more than 200 countries to date, with the 12th season debuting in March 2016.

If you haven’t yet seen the show, here are free episodes that you can watch online.

Testimonials Two Blue Squares

And, we’re honored to say that Deadliest Catch has chosen to use our underwater video cameras for their production work. Here’s what the directors of the award-winning program have to say about us:

As the Directors of Photography for Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch” we have the responsibility to bring home high quality professional images that will be viewed by tens of millions of people worldwide. This is an awesome responsibility considering the incredibly harsh environment that we work in. All of our photographic systems are challenged by salt water, freezing spray, and violent collisions with hydraulic cranes and swinging crab pots – not to mention the times that we lose our footing and fall or get washed across the deck by waves. In this crazy environment our most reliable tool has always been the SplashCam. I should also mention that we get more than awesome cameras from SplashCam We have also enjoyed the full support of Jason and his team. The fact is that the people at SplashCam care about their products and their clients. Their dedication has been instrumental in our success. This year as we head to the Emmy’s, honored for our third year in a row as “Outstanding Cinematography” nominees, we want to thank those who have contributed to our photographic success. We want to extend a special thanks to the team at SplashCam!

Zac McFarlane

Doug Stanley Directors of Photography

Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch”

Want Your Own Marine Video Camera? Or Ready to Rent?


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We offer a full range of underwater video cameras that can be used in the harshest environments, as the directors of Deadliest Catch have stated and the show has demonstrated. We offer self-deployed, hull mounted and deck/engine room cameras and our professional team is ready to help you choose exactly the right underwater video camera for your needs.

If you need to use a camera but aren’t yet ready to buy, contact us for details about our marine video camera rental program. The systems come with up to 400 feet of cable. Other reasons you might want an underwater camera rental:

• You’re involved in a specific research project that needs an underwater camera, but you’re not sure you’ll need one, long-term
• You want to get comfortable with a particular camera before purchasing
• You’re on a scuba-diving vacation

Whether you’re wanting an underwater camera rental or are ready to buy, SplashCam has what you need. Call 1-800-355-4234 today!