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  January 29, 2001

Babb Seeks to Salvage Rich Resource
of Ocean Video Tapes

Armed with a $120,000 federal grant, the National Undersea Research Center at the Avery Point campus is embarking on a rescue mission. The victims in need of salvation are stacked on shelf after shelf in a makeshift archive at the Marine Sciences and Technology Center.

Thousands of hours of valuable research are represented by the huge video tape collection. Over the years, the repository has become a potpourri of video technology. Tape formats range from the antiquated and cumbersome three-quarter inch cassettes to the most modern and convenient digital diskettes.This same predicament exists at the other five National Undersea Research Centers located around the country. The primary value of the recorded data has already been extracted and analyzed, but Ivar Babb, director of the UConn-based center sees added value from the archives.

"The value of the research we've conducted and funded through the center at UConn is extensive. Multiply that by five to represent the resources gathering dust at each of the other National Undersea Research Centers, and you start to understand the immensity of the potential locked up in these archives," says Babb.

Babb is working to give the research videos a second life. He approached the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration for funding of what he was told was the first-of-a-kind request. With the help of a two-year grant, he is creating a web-based databank for marine research, by pulling together the work of dozens of scientists from across the country. It involves the Internet - Internet 2 to be exact, because a broadband is needed for the amount and quality of streaming video Babb has plans for.

In the not-too-distant future, he hopes a classroom teacher or an oceanographer from any part of the world will be able to type a keyword on the computer and retrieve correlating video and research-based information - be it on a fish, a coral or body of water.

Babb recognizes his vision poses many challenges, including the time it is taking to investigate and choose the needed hardware, developing systems and software, not to mention the miles of video tape that need reviewing, editing and cataloguing. He is in the process of hiring a research assistant and has engaged the help of his counterpart at the National Undersea Research Center in North Carolina.

"It's not something we're going to accomplish in two or three years," Babb says. "It will be a never-ending process that hopefully will establish a new paradigm of providing access to the seafloor through the entire National Undersea Research Program."

Just from UConn's standpoint there are more than 16 years of video recordings from the ocean's depths.

One mission worth salvaging was headed by Richard Cooper, now the director of the Marine Sciences and Technology Center. In the late 1970s, his expertise as an oceanographer was enlisted to gather what would become evidence in prohibiting exploratory oil drilling in Georges Bank, one of the world's richest fishing grounds. Using submersibles, Cooper and his crew recorded an underwater world of marine life few had ever seen before.

Peter Auster, the center's science director, continues to add to the archives. As one of the nation's leading fish ecologists, Auster's research concentrates on the biodiversity and fragility of life in the South China Seas, the Florida Keys, and the Caribbean, just to mention a few.

One current focus is the Stellwagen National Marine Sanctuary off the Massachusetts coast, one of several areas targeted for marine life preservation. The federal government is evaluating current sanctuary regulations and Auster's work is expected to play a large role in the decision making.

So it comes as no surprise that Babb's project is receiving hearty support from several federal agencies, including the National Marine Fisheries Service, which leans heavily on the findings of Auster and other notable scientists. Babb is working closely with the agencies to prioritize which video is salvaged first.

Janice Palmer