Expedition to the bottom of the sea

Now you can come face to face with the fishes when you visit the Web's first live underwater site. Dorothy Walker reports

One nuclear submarine, two marine robots, three satellites and the man who discovered the wreck of the Titanic. These are just a few of the ingredients behind the world's first underwater Web site, which went live last week.

The site is linked to Project Jason, an underwater expedition off the Florida Keys led by Dr Bob Ballard, who found the world's most famous wreck in 1986.

The expedition is studying marine life, particularly the effects of sunlight and human activity on coral reefs. Any visitor to the Web site can watch live broadcasts, meeting sharks and barracuda eye to eye. But schoolchildren around the world, including three schools in Britain, have been given the chance actually to take part in the two-week expedition, using the Internet to experience driving an underwater robot.

The robot is a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that creeps around collecting samples from a shallow reef nine miles off the Florida coast. It is a direct descendant of Jason, the ROV that Dr Ballard drove down the main staircase of the Titanic. It is controlled from a submerged research vessel, called Aquarius, containing six scientists. Aquarius in turn is connected via fibre-optic cable to a surface ship, which sends audio- and video- based information around the world via three satellite systems.

As if this were not enough technology, the whole set-up is duplicated at a deeper reef farther out to sea, using a US Navy nuclear submarine as the scientists' base. Differences in data from the two reefs will show the effects of degradation on coral-based life.

For the robot-propelling children, including pupils from Liverpool, Southampton and Lakenheath in Suffolk, the expedition is part of a year-long science project designed by the Jason Foundation. The foundation was set up by Dr Ballard, with the help of corporate sponsors, after he was inundated by questions from students about the technology used to discover the wreck of the Titanic. After the expedition ends on Friday, children will continue with the Jason curriculum, using the Net to publish and compare data on water samples and fish from their areas.

Since 1989, the Jason Foundation has been staging annual "electronic field trips", which have depended heavily on technology. Projects have ranged from testing space exploration vehicles in Hawaii to studying tubeworms 6,000ft below sea level in the Sea of Cortez, off Mexico. Every expedition has been broadcast live, but the Jason Project is the first to be shown on the Web.

Bill Lang, a UK-based communications technician for EDS Corporation, which is responsible for the project's communications, says: "The technology behind this expedition is incredible - that's what we want to show the students. Hopefully, whole careers can be developed from these ideas."

What's next? Is Dr Ballard going to bring us the Titanic live on the Web? "No, he isn't," says Mr Lang emphatically. "He would prefer to stay with things that help the students to get directly involved in the sciences. Besides, the Titanic is in 12,000ft of water, so it's pretty hard to get to."

Follow the expedition until Friday at: http://aquarius.eds.com

Year-round information at: http://www.eds.com/jason

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