Taking exploration to new depths.

The majority of life on Earth exists in our oceans. Yet most of these regions remain a mystery. There are countless species—and in some cases, entire ecosystems—that have yet to be discovered. So one group of marine biologists designed a way to take their research even further, by taking an iPad deep beneath the ocean’s surface.

75%

of the world’s coral reefs are currently threatened by natural and man-made stresses.

Source: US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 10 Dec. 2013

Pollution. Overfishing. Global climate change. These are just a few of the problems plaguing our planet’s oceans.

And when an aquatic environment first shows signs of stress, they’re seen in the dwindling numbers of fish and other organisms found in its coral reefs. That’s why the work of Dr Michael Berumen and his team is so critical. Berumen, a marine biologist and professor at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, goes on diving expeditions around the world to collect data on reefs and their wildlife. Information as simple as the number of fish on a reef can tell a deeper story about the health of an ocean. And can help efforts to preserve it.

“We know a lot about life on land. But we’ve only just begun to explore the depths of the ocean.”

Dr Michael Berumen

Dr Berumen and his team used to take slates, waterproof paper and pencils to scribble down learnings.

Despite their best efforts, Berumen and his crew were limited by their tools. They took slates, waterproof paper and ordinary pencils to record findings — counting thousands of fish by making hash marks and scribblings on the paper. Later, they had to enter all this information into a computer manually — a process that wasn’t just incredibly time consuming, it was also rife with errors.

“We had to input the data right away, before we forgot what we wrote,” explains Berumen, “and often we couldn’t even read our own handwriting. We spent more time inputting data than we did diving. After yet another trip where I spent dozens of hours transcribing notes, I thought, ‘this is crazy’.” Since Berumen relied so much on his iPad, he decided to figure out a way to use it in his underwater work.

“iPad was the obvious choice. It’s easy to use, and the operating system is stable. That’s what you want when you’re underwater getting critical data.”

Berumen and his team developed the iDive housing to take iPad deep underwater.* The housing is constructed of rubber, various types of polycarbonate, and die-cast metals. At the depths where Berumen and his team often do their research, around five atmospheres of pressure can weigh on the device. The iDive case functions similarly to a scuba regulator valve, automatically adding or releasing gas to adjust internal pressure. This allows features of the iPad — including the Multi‑Touch screen, the camera and even Bluetooth connectivity — to work deep in the ocean.

“The ocean is still the great unknown. But using iPad with the iDive housing makes that unknown more accessible.”

The team also developed an app that transformed the way they collect data. Now they preload a screen with pictures of different fish species — and count them by tapping the photos, instead of scribbling markings on paper. When cataloguing as many as 100 species on a given dive, it makes a huge difference in simplifying their data collection. If they encounter a new species, they can use the iPad camera to snap a shot. And once they’re back on dry land, the scientists transfer all the data in seconds. Precious time is saved. And the information they collect is much more accurate.

“I’m most excited about seeing where other people are going to take this technology.”

A dwindling fish population can show that a region is facing environmental stress, whereas new species can indicate a reef’s growth. The data Berumen and his team collect using iPad provide crucial information and direction to preserve oceans around the world.

And Berumen can only imagine the possibilities now that people can use iPad underwater. “We envisioned some great uses for iDive, but there will be countless others,” he says. Safety will be enhanced as divers use iPad to communicate with other divers or the boat. Commercial divers can enjoy a film or a book while waiting on a decompression stop. Future apps might help hone diving skills, or allow for “citizen science”, where anyone can count species and contribute their data to science. “Or maybe someone will just go underwater to document their honeymoon,” says Berumen. “There will be endless uses for iPad underwater, for everything from safety, to research, to communication, to people just having a good time.”

“71 per cent of Earth is covered in water. And now iPad can go there. It will give us more possibilities underwater than we’ve ever dreamed.”

Back to surface