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The Ski-Monkey III benthic camera system: A call for collaboration

By Grant van der Heever, Safiyya Sedick and Jordan Van Stavel, SAEON Egagasini Node
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The Ski-Monkey III is a deep-sea towed camera system that uses the latest technology to collect physical and biological data simultaneously from across the seafloor (© Luther Adams)

“Collaboration allows us to know more than we are capable of knowing by ourselves." (Solarz, 2015).

The wisdom of this statement is reflected in the many great works and breakthroughs in science and the world as we know it today.

Numerous scientific advancements are formed based on collaborations. Collaborations unite people from various disciplines, resulting in a fresh flow of ideas, solutions to complex problems and most importantly, an increase in the overall scientific knowledge base.

For instance, it took a large team of scientists and engineers working together to accomplish the landing of the Mars Curiosity Rover. Equally revolutionary, is the 13 years and several international teams it took to sequence the first human genome.

Collaborations such as these are particularly important in a country such as South Africa, where the state of scientific research and research capacity is still developing in comparison with the rest of the world. This is especially true for marine science.

South Africa has made huge strides since the first European colonies invaded and defined our shores in the mid-20th century, with the establishment of the Division of Sea Fisheries in 1929 and the subsequent establishment of numerous other marine research institutions and organisations. Today, South Africa is at the forefront of marine science on the African continent, with South African scientists contributing comparatively more to marine science, in terms of published scientific articles, than the rest of Africa (McQuaid, 2010).

The disconnect between different areas of expertise

Despite this, the science is isolated, with the majority of research outputs being produced by a handful of individuals. Furthermore, areas of expertise appear to be specific to different parts of the country, with little to no collaborations across regions and different areas of expertise. This is disappointing and possibly one of the major factors inhibiting scientific progress in South Africa.

Ken Brink made the following statement in 1987 following the symposium on Population and Community Ecology in the Benguela Upwelling Region and Comparable Frontal Systems: “There is a tendency for the physical people to talk only to the physical people and the biological people to talk only to the biologists. This mystifies me, because I see the biology taking place within a physical setting and I find it hard to separate the two."

This disconnect is still evident within our marine science community today. A report by Mark Gibbons (2009) on a biologist's personal view of the South African marine science community and its outputs (2001-2006), found that the majority of scientific articles published by South African marine scientists are of a single disciplinary nature ( ̴ 60%), with outputs from two and three or more disciplines contributing a mere 28% and 12% respectively.

A shift towards a multi-disciplinary approach

Reports such as these have resulted in an increased push by industry and institutions to shift from the isolated, specialist approach to a broader, multi-disciplinary approach that allows scientists to answer the fundamental questions in marine biology. Examples of regional collaborative projects in marine science include the African Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme (ACEP), SeaKeys and the South African National Antarctic Programme (SANAP), to mention but a few.

Ski-Monkey III – a case for collaboration

Following on this collaborative, multi-disciplinary theme, the SAEON Egagasini Node would like to introduce its Ski-Monkey III benthic camera system. Ski-Monkey III is a deep-sea towed camera system that uses the latest technology to collect physical and biological data simultaneously from across the seafloor.

The equipment used to sample the physical components of the environment includes a Conductivity Temperature and Depth sensor (CTD), which collects conductivity (i.e. salinity), temperature and depth data, an oxygen sensor, that samples oxygen concentrations across the seafloor, and a cone dredge that gets towed behind the system to collect sediment. The biological components of the environment are sampled using three cameras, which include a forward facing main camera, a downward facing camera and a lateral facing camera, as well as a plankton net that samples near-bottom plankton and larval samples.

Further modifications that Egagasini Node scientists and technicians intend to incorporate onto the Ski-Monkey frame include an acoustic release and Niskin bottle setup to sample water that can be used to analyse for environmental DNA, nutrients and stable isotopes. There are also plans to include an acoustic doppler current profiler (ADCP) and/or a current meter onto the frame, which will allow for the collection of valuable data on ocean current velocities.

In addition, some thought is also being put into the use of a side-scan sonar to collect information on seafloor sediment characteristics and topography. Examples of these applications can be seen from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI). They developed a towed camera platform fitted with a rock corer and a Niskin bottle setup (, as well as an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) fitted with side scan sonar and optic capabilities to collect highly detailed sonar and optical images of the seafloor (

Understanding the association between the physical and biological environments

Understanding the complex relationship between deep-sea currents, topography, sediments and biology will allow us to characterise the ocean in greater detail, and to understand the association between the physical and the biological.

The large amount of data that can be collected using the Ski-Monkey III camera system makes it an ideal platform for collaboration between scientists from different fields. Platforms such as these begin to bridge the gap between specialist and generalist research and could potentially propel marine research in South Africa to a whole new level.

Let us collaborate and join hands towards an integrated, multi-disciplinary approach towards marine science, so that we can better predict the effects of the physical environment on the biological environment.

For more on the Ski-Monkey III camera system see previous newsletter articles:


Further reading

  • Brink, K. H. (1987). In the Benguela and Comparable Ecosystems. Payne, A. I. L., Gulland, 1. A. and K. H. Brink (Eds) South African Journal of Marine Science 5: p. 954.
  • Gibbons, M.J. (2009). A biologist's personal overview of the SA Marine Science community and its outputs (2001-2006). Unsolicited Report to SANCOR. p. 1-126.
  • McQuaid, C.D. (2010). Balancing Science and Politics in South African Marine Biology. South African Journal of Marine Science 106: p 1-6.
  • Solarz, P. (2015). Learn like a pirate: Empower your students to collaborate, lead and succeed. Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc. California.


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