In April 2013 a team of National Geographic engineers packed up their cameras and headed to Miami. The two “Driftcams” they brought with them weighed in at 150 pounds each and were designed to submerge down to 3000 feet. Alan Turchik, a National Geographic mechanical engineer, and his teammates, who worked on the camera’s technology for a year, joined scientist Neil Hammerschlag on an expedition to investigate deep-ocean creatures that exist hundreds of meters below the surface alongside plankton.
Unfortunately, a harsh storm hit on the evening of May 2, several miles off the coast. “We went out at night to deploy the instrument and it was in the middle of this crazy storm. There’s sideways rain. We’re completely soaked. We’re trying to hoist this thing over the side of the boat and put it in the ocean,” remembers Turchik. After a physical struggle, the team was finally able to deploy the Driftcams. All they had to do after that was wait.
“We waited on the surface for hours for the camera to return back,” states Turchik. The camera, outfitted with a GPS, would broadcast its location via radio beacon to the crew once it re-emerged. Finally the team picked up the signal and began racing their boat toward it. “We’re zipping up the coast of Florida and we’re chasing them in this boat,” recalled Turchik. As conditions worsened, it became unsafe to proceed any further. The crew had no choice; they had to leave the camera and go back to Miami.
The cameras had been sucked into the Gulf Stream, one of the fastest currents on Earth, spanning the coast of Miami and pushing out into the Atlantic Ocean towards Europe.
Helpless, the crew watched the GPS as the cameras kept drifting farther and farther into the Atlantic. “Eventually, the batteries died in the satellite transmitter that was broadcasting their coordinates and we thought, they’re lost at sea forever,” said Turchik. The expedition had failed. Or had it?
Three years later, Turchik’s team was contacted by a Frenchman sailing across the Atlantic. Each year, Eric Visage travels from the Caribbean to his home in France accompanied by his little dog, Scuba. “My dog began to bark, and we saw this ball,” Visage recalls. A turtle appeared to be stuck to a round piece of trash floating in the ocean. As Erik approached the animal to save it, the turtle swam off, leaving the barnacle-covered orb behind.
Pulling the orb from the sea, Visage realized that is was not trash but a highly technical camera. The camera was marked with the National Geographic logo and a very faded sticker with the contact information for the engineering team. Visage had indeed recovered one of the Driftcams—thousands of miles from where it had originally been deployed.
“Getting the camera back was incredible,” stated Turchik. “The amazing thing is not just that this camera survived on the ocean, but the footage that was on the camera survived as well.”
Neil Hammerschlag, who believed his mission was a bust, was elated. The recovered camera had five hours of footage, and could now be used to fulfill its purpose: understanding what kind of creatures lie in depths of the ocean that the team was exploring.Eric Berkenpas, director of remote engineering at National Geographic, swims next to the Driftcam. (Photo by Dave McAloney)
Alan Turchik is a National Geographic mechanical engineer in the Remote Imaging Engineering Group at the National Geographic Society. He provides highly technical solutions to difficult field problems faced by explorers, photographers, and filmmakers.
To learn more about the science and exploration supported by the nonprofit National Geographic Society, visit natgeo.org/grants.
Series Producer: Chris Mattle
Footage: Alan Turchik, Christina Shepard, Dave McAloney, Eric Berkenpas, Pristine Seas
Associate Producer: Elaina Kimes
Video Producer/Editor: Monica Pinzon