UH Hilo marine scientist sets up underwater livestream in waters off Kona

Marine scientist John Burns and collaborators hope to develop the platform into one of the world’s most advanced underwater observatories.

By Susan Enright

Ocean Livestream Screenshot

John Burns aboard small boat.
John Burns

A marine scientist at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo has set up a livestream camera in waters off Kona. The launch of the public platform is the first step in what developers hope will become one of the world’s most advanced underwater observatories.

John Burns, founder of the Multiscale Environmental Graphical Analysis (MEGA) Laboratory at UH Hilo, is an assistant professor of marine science. His research focuses on coral health and disease. Burns recently developed innovative three-dimensional maps of coral reefs to accurately measure how natural and human-induced disturbances impact ecosystems.

Burns and underwater engineers have been setting up the camera and cables off Keahole Point for about six months. The camera system is mounted on an abandoned piping infrastructure from a sea water pumping operation no longer in service. This allows for the installation of the camera and cables without any further damage to the reef. The 1,000-foot cable system is run through the abandoned pipes, protecting reef and cables from damage.

The old piping system is under the authority of the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawai‘i, an economic development park and self-sufficient state agency that has given its full support to the camera project.

The underwater platform in such crystal clear waters teeming with life—myriad fish species, eels, sharks, hawksbill turtles, and seals are among the many ocean creatures viewed in the first days of the live feed—presents a unique observation opportunity for the general public and marine scientists.

“We are hoping we can use this platform to develop one of the world’s most advanced underwater observatories,” says Burns. For example, he is in discussions with collaborating engineers on developing research applications such as machine learning algorithms for fish counts via the camera.

At left is an aeiral view of the area off Kona where the camera is located, Keahole Point, United States. At right is a close up of the survey point, a coral head on the reef being observed.
The camera is located in waters off Kona at Keahole Point. The project is underway in collaboration with Aqualink, an ocean engineering company doing similar projects throughout the world. Image courtesy of Aqualink, click to enlarge.

The project is done in collaboration with Aqualink, a philanthropically-funded engineering company designing technologically advanced systems to help scientists and citizens observe and gather data in local marine ecosystems throughout the world. The systems consist of satellite-connected underwater temperature sensors and photographic surveys. A description of the Kona project from Aqualink:

This camera is part of collaboration with Aqualink, The MEGA Lab, and View Into The Blue. The project is designed to revolutionize marine monitoring by developing innovative observatory stations that leverage technological advancements to improve our capacity to monitor coral reefs in the face of climate change.

The camera is located at one of the Aqualink buoy locations (https://aqualink.org/reefs/1006​). There is some incredible existing technology that uses satellites to measure the ocean’s surface temperature from space. However, coral reefs and other important marine ecosystems are not always near the surface, and complex ocean dynamics can create a large temperature difference just a few meters down. To augment the satellite temperature, Aqualink partnered with Sofar Ocean to design a buoy that measures the temperature at the ocean floor. By building as many of these buoys as we can, and deploying them around the world, we can begin to build a dataset that helps in understanding where and when heat stress in the ocean will occur. By measuring, we can understand. And by understanding, we can begin to help.

The Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA) is perhaps the largest single green economic development project in the world solely devoted to growing a green economy. This site is a perfect location for an ocean observatory system. The surrounding reefs have been ecologically monitored for decades, and the existing pipeline provides infrastructure for instrument deployment. The Multiscale Environmental Graphical Analysis (MEGA) Lab (https://www.themegalab.org​) is a research group based at UH Hilo. The MEGA Lab is managing deployments and integrating data into their next generation 3D habitat mapping and sensing of Hawaiian coral reefs.

Hawaiian coral reefs have experienced decline due to thermal stress and anthropogenic stressors. Integrating real-time video monitoring with advanced sensors, communication systems, and machine learning tools will enhance our capacity to detect and measure changes happening on coral reefs. The streaming camera provides a mechanism to engage broad audiences and stimulate ocean conservation to protect these valuable ecosystems.

Videos from the Kona project can be viewed on the Aqualink YouTube channel.


Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.