UH Hilo livestream camera in waters off Kona is revolutionizing marine science education and research

Free to the public, it is the world’s only off-shore, scientifically surveyed and maintained, virtual observatory system.

By Jordan Hemmerly.

A large multi-disciplinary collaboration over many months has resulted in the installation of a high-resolution real-time video monitoring camera in waters off Kona, Hawai‘i Island. The camera went live in April of this year and is available to schools, scientists, and the general public as a continuous live stream.

John HR Burns
John HR Burns

The project is headed by John Burns, assistant professor of marine science at UH Hilo and founder of the Multiscale Environmental Graphical Analysis Laboratory (MEGA Lab) which is spearheading the endeavor. This project is an ongoing joint effort between MEGA Lab, the ecological monitoring equipment company View Into The Blue, and the philanthropic engineering company Aqualink.

The camera, equipped with advanced sensors and communication systems capable of working with machine learning tools, has already captured dazzling and even shocking images of marine life to the delight of schoolchildren, researchers, and the public. In addition to the sheer entertainment value, surprising photos of fish species, eels, sharks, octopus, hawksbill turtles, and even seals spending time on the reef, are proving invaluable both educationally and scientifically.

“A lot of K-12 groups use the live feed for everything from watching reef organisms, to learning about coral reefs, to having students ID and count fish for various exercises,” says Burns.

Shark swimming by, reef below.
A shark is caught cruising by the camera on June 3, 2021. Courtesy image from John Burns.

This innovative method of constantly collecting survey imagery of marine life has also provided researchers with new information about population numbers and the interactions of species with their environment. Scientists are also investigating the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in underwater environments to do things such as identify species and conduct population surveys.

“The science output will hopefully create more opportunities for students to get involved with data science applications that leverage the video footage to improve our understanding of reef processes,” says Burns.

The camera

The livestream can be viewed at this link. The associated data dashboard tool combines temperature conditions as reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and an Aqualink buoy.

Screenshot of data info on location, live cam, satellite observation, buoy observation, heat stress alert and wind.
A screenshot of the dashboard tool associated with the livestream camera combines temperature conditions as reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and an Aqualink buoy.

The system installation took place approximately one year ago at the westernmost region of Kailua-Kona, known as Keahole Point, on the leeward side of Hawai‘i Island. Installation took approximately six months to complete. The livestream launched in April of 2021.

The camera has a custom mount which is attached upside-down to a previously existing abandoned seawater pump infrastructure under the authority of the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawai’i, an economic development park and self-sufficient state agency. The solid yet open placement of the mount combined with state-of-the-art technologies allow the lens to be rotated in all directions.

The science

Through tracking reef health and population dynamics concurrently with temperature fluctuations, the camera and associated sensors may provide vital feedback in assessing overall reef stability. Hawaiian coral reefs are subject to thermal stress and other anthropogenic stressors.

While the MEGA Lab is managing all deployments of the camera and integrating data into their next generation 3D habitat mapping and sensing of Hawaiian coral reefs, the live cam’s appeal to other interested individuals across many disciplines is a critical aspect of raising awareness of the ocean’s creatures, history, and future conservation. The hope is the 24/7 public broadcast from the camera will have an impact on stimulating ocean conservation by engaging a broad audience.

For example, the blossoming studies and round-the-clock picturesque views have been utilized in classrooms across the globe. The livestream has acted as a bridge between virtual work or textbook readings and the natural environment for many students and their instructors alike at an idyllic time.

Screenshot of underwater cam image with chat feed in right column.
Viewers of the live stream often leave comments with timestamps where specific species or behaviors have been spotted.

Burns notes that viewers of the live stream often leave comments with timestamps where specific species or behaviors have been spotted.

“This allows the information, species, or behaviors noticed by these citizens to be isolated, assessed, and considered as possible subjects for future machine learning based studies,” says Burns.

A live chat record screening process to alert the research team of heavy activity at particular timestamps is one of the many extensions in place to help link citizens with the science.

Burns, alongside his team of post-doctoral researchers, graduate research technicians, and undergraduate research assistants, can occasionally be spotted on camera as they snorkel to the open-ocean location in order perform normal maintenance on the world’s only off-shore, scientifically surveyed and maintained, virtual observatory system.

Undergraduate students with UH Hilo’s data science program have created training datasets for artificial intelligence tools to automate fish surveillance by labeling each species of fish in still images that were isolated once captured from the daily live feed.

Carson Green
Carson Green

Carson Green, an undergraduate pursuing a bachelor’s degree in marine science and a certificate in data science did volunteer work identifying reef fish for MEGA Lab and Aqualink’s underwater live stream.

“The work I did mostly consisted of using Roboflow to look at still images isolated from the live stream, and then identifying any fish or invertebrates in these images,” says Green. “I was beyond excited to work on this project as I thought the live stream was ethereal and I wanted to improve my ability to identify reef fish.”

Green says that in addition to his own personal growth, there are tangible, practical benefits that the artificial intelligence or AI research that MEGA Lab and Aqualink are conducting will accomplish.

Kailey Pascoe pictured.
Kailey Pascoe

“This work can greatly advance reef monitoring in the face of climate change and other stressors,” he says.

Monitoring, such as surveying fish assemblages, yields information about factors like abundance, size structure, and species composition. This information is vital to assessing the biological integrity of the overall reef system.

MEGA Lab research technician and doctoral candidate Kailey Pascoe says in an interview with Hawaii News Now: “Even if you aren’t comfortable in the ocean, this is a really awesome spot to check out what types of species we have. You can learn all these little different relationships that the fish have, some of them team up together.”

Burns hopes the cam project will continue fostering the development of next-generation science tools, interdisciplinary studies, and collaborative relationships.

About the author of this story: Jordan Hemmerly is earning her bachelor’s degree in marine science at UH Hilo. She is a research assistant at the Multiscale Environmental Graphical Analysis (MEGA) Lab where she works in coral reef research.