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December 06, 2007

Outside Looking In

Underwater video systems bring the ocean to life

There's nothing like a new pair of eyes, and ones that can see under the water certainly qualify.

Who needs underwater video cameras and why? Furthermore, what kind of equipment exists, and how does it fit into the overall fishing/seafaring experience?
Those of you who feel overdosed on extra electronics may be happy to hear that there aren't a lot of brands of underwater (u/w from now on) cameras out there suitable for angling purposes. A good number of video housings are  available for those with a penchant for filming underwater, but unless you're a nascent Steven Spielberg, essentially you'll want a camera that can provide an insider's view - so to speak - of what goes on in, under and around your hooks, lures and bait.

Why U/W Video?
There are several reasons to have a video camera that looks under your boat: The idea is neat; who knows what you'll see? And if you have aboard children (or - heart be still - people of any age)   disinterested in angling, it'll keep them from annoying you while you're fishing. The latter strikes me as a high point, but even you will sneak a peek every now and again. If mounted to track your lures, check your video monitor almost as often as you do your sounder.
Some caveats first. As much as you'd like to use buzzwords about video cameras, forget high-definition. Generally speaking, high-definition equipment requires a lot of light, and unless you're towing a huge bank of lights, keep your hi-def ideas focused on the 47-incher in the den. 
Consider water opacity when opting for an in-hull mount. Just because the in-transom lights you mounted seem to brighten things up around the dock, unless you live in an area rarefied (to the rest of the fishing world) where words like the hackneyed "gin-clear" apply, chances are you won't see a lot under your boat with an u/w video camera in less-than-crystalline waters. 
Neither of the latter caveats means you shouldn't have an in-hull camera. Just don't expect a television-clear image of the bottom 20 feet away when you use your system in, say, Boston Harbor, the Chesapeake or San Francisco Bay. 
In clean, non-tropical salt water you should get a vision range of about 7 to 20 feet. Going by what divers experience in non-tropical conditions, u/w cameras should give you about 10 percent more underwater visibility than the human eye. Tropical water visibility can run from 50 to well over 100 feet - and even more in some areas and situations. You should be able to view down to about 75 or 100 feet in daylight: Deeper than that will probably require you to use lights, just as you will if you use the camera at night.

There are two types of u/w video  systems of interest to anglers: Thru-hull cameras and those that can be trolled or otherwise manipulated overboard. "Other-wise manipulated" refers to cameras that can be attached to poles that can be dunked overboard. Though you needn't use a monitor with a "pole-cam," without one, the point of having real-time video gets lost. When attached to a screen, however, it makes an excellent means of  seeing (and recording) close-to-the boat action for enjoyment, as well as providing a quickie method of checking out underwater boat problems like fouled props. 
Borel Manufacturing out of San Francisco makes the Sea Cam - a drop-over-the-side lens that you can hook to a gaff or boat hook and view over a TV, VCR, camcorder or computer - essentially anything with video-in input. With a working depth of 50 feet, Sea Cam comes with the underwater color video camera, 66 feet of cable, built-in infrared LEDs for night lighting, removable stainless-steel weights, an AC power supply with a 12-volt car-style plug adapter and the boat-hook attachment bracket for around $165.
Thru-hulls - somewhat more expensive - cost about $500 to $800, followed by towables, which can run the gamut from $1,100 on up to $3,000 depending on whether you're buying just a camera and cable or a complete suitcase/ready-to-plug-and-play system with recorder, etc.

It shouldn't be surprising that transducer manufacturer Airmar makes a thru-hull camera. Airmar's CA 500 comes in a stainless-steel or plastic housing (the same as a transducer housing), has a sapphire view window (strong and scratch resistant) and a retractable insert with a self-closing valve that allows the camera to be removed from the hull. It uses a normal video-input plug and a Sony camera that provides excellent low-light imagery, in this case, 0.01 lux at night (0.5 day). 
A lux is a measure of a light's intensity: 0.01 is about the amount of light given off by a quarter moon. There are several luminosity measurements; these include candelas, foot-candles, lumens and lux. All are related, but make sure you compare apples to apples, or in this case lux to lux, when determining the ability of a camera to "see."
Another manufacturer of a thru-hull camera - Ocean Systems of Everett, Washington - sells its Drop-Shot 20/20, which uses an Airmar fitting (brass or  plastic) and a Sony camera. Its different levels of equipment include a self-closing thru-hull fitting or a plug, varying amounts of cable (50, 100 and 150 feet) for dropping the camera overboard and a 12- to 120-volt adapter. It connects via a male-to-male RCA video connector.

Once the province of treasure hunters, commercial underwater workers and the military, towable cameras have been entering the mainstream as they've grown smaller. One of the more recent uses has been to observe exactly what those $25 lures you're trolling behind the boat are doing there.
Ocean Systems makes one model called the Deep Blue Pro Color II designed to tow. Serious anglers have used this system successfully to check towed the lures and baits in their spreads and better assess movement as well as hook-up characteristics. The camera uses a military-grade umbilical cord (the power and tow cable). With its anodized aluminum housing with a thermoplastic coating, Deep Blue Pro Color II functions at depths to 800 feet (an upgraded model carries a 2,000-foot rating), weighs 11 pounds, comes standard with 100 feet of cable and can be mounted with an auxiliary light pod for night trolling. The video outputs via a normal video plug like the thru-hull units.
"A towed array is the best way to go," says Ocean System's Jason Whittle. "The camera gets purchased for sport fishing, but then it becomes a secondary hobby and starts getting used for everything imaginable."

Is it possible to build an u/w video system yourself? With a modicum of skill, the answer is yes. Lenses and cable are all available separately, and anything that can be made watertight - PVC pipe comes to mind - can be used as housing. Google "DIY underwater camera" and you'll come across hundreds of successful projects, including an aquarium camera made from a computer lens, a hair cream jar and the cover of a CD case; you'll also find some even more esoteric plans. This route is limited by your skill set and imagination and the availability of the proper parts. Just remember, there's no warranty for your creation, so builder beware.

If you're running your camera off outriggers or in the pattern off a rod or tow line, you'll want to do some R&D before heading out to see how the camera behaves under tow. Stabilizer fins may be required to keep the camera steady in high-speed trolls, but in normal trolling conditions, you just want to ensure you have the camera close enough to capture the action. If you're using a drop camera to watch a baited line, obviously stability won't be a problem. It's also terrific to drop over a camera when bottomfishing to see just where the fish are (or aren't) and put your bait in exactly the right spot.
Airmar / 603-673-9570 /

Borel / 800-824-4449 /

Ocean Systems / 800-355-4234 /