March 1, 2021

Seeing Sur Ridge: New animation transforms deep-sea mapping data to reveal the majesty of an underwater oasis

MBARI scientists partner with visual effects artists to shed light on the splendor of Sur Ridge

WARNING: This video may potentially trigger photosensitivity reactions. Viewer discretion is advised.

An underwater oasis—lush with corals and sponges—lies submerged just 30 kilometers (19 miles) west of Point Sur on California’s Central Coast (Figure 1). In 2013, after many years spent mapping Monterey Bay and its environs, MBARI and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists discovered this majestic deep-sea garden, 800 meters (2,600 feet) below the ocean’s surface, atop a rocky outcrop named Sur Ridge. Roughly the size of Manhattan, Sur Ridge stands 500 meters (1640 ft) tall and stretches over 20 kilometers (12 miles) long. For over 20 years, MBARI researchers have been working diligently to create ever more detailed maps of Sur Ridge. These maps are critical for helping scientists better understand geologic processes, such as underwater landslides, and to monitor ocean health, including the impacts of climate change on the marine animals that call Sur Ridge home.

Figure 1. Sur Ridge is located about 30 kilometers (19 miles) west of Point Sur on California‘s Central Coast. This map presents ship-collected EM300 multibeam sonar data at 30-meter resolution superimposed over a model of predicted bathymetry based on ship-collected depth data or, when not available, on satellite altimetry. Image: Jenny Paduan © MBARI 2021.

In an effort to share the magic of this deep-sea garden with the public, MBARI scientists have spent the past several months working with designers at Frame 48—a Los Angeles-based post-production company that typically works in film and television—to transform the massive amount of mapping data into an animation that captures the stark and delicate beauty of Sur Ridge. “Our goal was to distill these two decades of work into a two-minute animation that captures the majesty of this underwater world that so few people get to see,” said MBARI Principal Engineer Dave Caress who helped oversee the effort. “It’s the next best thing to visiting Sur Ridge in person.”

The stunning new animation showcases the importance of doing “nested” surveys—repeated mapping at increasingly higher resolution. The different scales and resolutions of the nested surveys allow researchers to better understand this unique ecosystem. Ship-based multibeam surveys of the overall area at 25-meter resolution are critical for the next level of navigation, the Mapping Autonomous Underwater Vehicle  (AUV) surveys at one-meter resolution; these, in turn, allow researchers to target areas of interest for surveys with the newly developed Low-Altitude Survey System mounted on a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) and flown just three meters off the bottom. This new mapping system combines sonar, lasers, and stereo cameras for five-centimeter and one-centimeter resolution maps and millimeter-scale photographs. Seven of these highest resolution surveys were used to build maps of the complex rock outcrops that create essential coral and sponge habitats. These new maps—for the first time—bring together geology and biology and have allowed MBARI scientists to quantify the remarkable deep-sea sponge and soft coral communities that call Sur Ridge home.

Executive Producers Tom Teller and Seth Josephson alongside computer graphic lead artists Enrique de la Garza and Ben Jannasch led the team at Frame 48 and collaborated with MBARI’s Caress and Senior Research Specialists Jenny Paduan and Steve Litvin to think about the best way to visualize the data and bring Sur Ridge’s remarkable biology to light. “Because MBARI has a large collection of data sets, each with a different resolution and coverage area, we had to come up with a few different methods to properly view and match the data together in a computer generated environment,” said Teller. For the 25-meter sonar data, the Frame 48 team created a two-dimensional grayscale height map, similar to a topographic map. The height map was read by special 3D software that turns a 2D plane into the hills, valleys, and rocky outcrops that the ROV Doc Ricketts and AUV can be seen flying over in the animation.

For the higher resolution surveys, the MBARI team shared the gridded bathymetry data from two sections of Sur Ridge that were especially rich in biodiversity. The colorful coral imagery in the animation was built using overlapping swaths of co-located photos that were fed into special computer software. The overlap of the photos is extremely important, as the software must recognize similar clusters of pixels in each picture in order to calculate the dimensions of the objects. The team at Frame 48 then generated a 3D point cloud from the scans which provided the highest level of fidelity seen in the animation. Because the coral was so visually stunning, the Frame 48 team chose to embrace the point cloud in its purest form and visualize all the data swirling together. “The final animation very much reflects the weaving together of art and science to showcase the amazing geology, biology, and ecology of Sur Ridge,” said Tom Teller.

Figure 2 illustrates the section of Sur Ridge depicted in the animation. The high-resolution ROV and AUV survey data used for the animation are from the northern end of Sur Ridge, indicated by the box outlined in red. These data were collected at a depth of 1,190 meters (0.75 miles).

Figure 2A. A map of Sur Ridge using AUV bathymetry at one-meter resolution on top of the ship-collected bathymetry gridded at 10-meter resolution. The small rectangle labeled “B” is the extent of one of the surveys by the Low-Altitude Survey System (LASS), which is shown in 2B and was featured in the animation. Figure 2B shows the wide-swath lidar bathymetry from the LASS at two-centimeter resolution over AUV bathymetry at one-meter resolution of the northern end of Sur Ridge (red point in 2A) that was featured in the animation. Figure 2C shows the region outlined on 2B where the animation zooms in on the seafloor, including the 3D representation of the corals. The dark speckles are the corals, sponges, and fish detected by the lidar. Image: Jenny Paduan © MBARI 2021.

With a mere five percent of the global seafloor having been mapped in detail so far, the vast majority of the deep ocean is yet to be explored. As scientists race to survey the deep, the threats of climate change, pollution, and overfishing continue to impact the overall health of the ocean. The work being conducted at Sur Ridge is part of a broader effort to map the entire seafloor by 2030.

Article by Heidi Cullen

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Heidi Cullen

Director of Communication & Strategic Initiatives
James Barry

James Barry

Senior Scientist & Benthic Ecologist