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Galway Bay – Ireland’s Smartest Bay

Did you know that Galway Bay is the smartest bay in Ireland? This is because it is home to the SmartBay Observatory. The SmartBay Observatory is one of Ireland's national marine research and testing facilities, and the only underwater cabled observatory in the country. The observatory sits 25 metres below the ocean’s surface on the seabed in Galway Bay, about 3km southeast from the village of Spiddal in Connemara, County Galway.

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Photo: The SmartBay Observatory

What does the SmartBay Observatory do and why is it so smart?

The SmartBay Observatory is smart because it is powered by a subsea fibre optic cable, which not only provides power to the Observatory but also allows for data transfer from the sensors and instruments on the Observatory to the shore station on land in Spiddal. This provides marine scientists with easy access to real-time environmental data collected continuously in Galway Bay. Check out our YouTube channel for videos on the cable installation process and the Observatory.

The SmartBay Observatory is home to a range of marine monitoring sensors and instruments which measure the tides and the water depth, the water temperature, water quality, dissolved oxygen and salinity. There is even an underwater microphone for recording sounds and an underwater camera for capturing video footage. Check out the full list of instruments and sensors in the document below.

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Photo: Sensors and Instruments on the SmartBay Observatory

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Photo: Some of the sensors and instruments from the SmartBay Observatory on display in Spiddal

The data from the SmartBay Observatory is available in real-time, 24 hours a day, via the live feed on the SmartBay website. The video camera has recorded a variety of fish, seals, crabs, and even squid in Galway Bay. Check out those videos and learn more about what lies beneath the sea at Galway Bay here and on our YouTube channel.

The SmartBay Observatory is also part of the ‘European Multidisciplinary Seafloor and water-column Observatory (EMSO)'. EMSO is a system of regional facilities at key sites around Europe, from the Atlantic through the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. The observatories are equipped with multiple sensors placed in the water column and on the seafloor. They constantly measure a range of biogeochemical and physical parameters to better understand natural hazards, climate change and marine ecosystems. You can find information on other EMSO observatories across Europe here.

What does the SmartBay Observatory look like?

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Photo: The SmartBay Observatory on the seabed in Galway Bay

The SmartBay Observatory cannot be seen from the water’s surface as it sits 25 metres below the ocean’s surface on the seabed in Galway Bay, about 3km southeast from the village of Spiddal in Connemara, County Galway. The professional divers who service the Observatory are the only ones who get to see what it looks like underwater, but they take photographs (like the one above) and video footage so that everyone else can see what it looks like. Every couple of years the Observatory is taken ashore for comprehensive maintenance and inspection which allows us to take the pictures you see below.

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Photo: SmartBay Observatory lift for maintenance

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Photo: Biofouling around the SmartBay Observatory camera

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Photo: Biofouling around the SmartBay Observatory sensors and instruments

Here is what the observatory looks like fresh out of the water. This was taken in November 2016 when the Operations Team from the Marine Institute and P&O were doing scheduled maintenance to ensure it keeps working as it should. Do you see the build-up of marine plants and animals (little white worm tubes) on the observatory? This is called marine biofouling and will happen to any structure left in the sea for a period of time. The level of marine biofouling on marine equipment varies with location, time of year, quality of water and the material the equipment is made from. Because of this, the observatory needs to be taken up every 1.5 – 2 years and cleaned and checked to keep it working well. While out of the water, the instruments are recalibrated to check that they are measuring accurately and that the data is reliable. Here are images of the observatory after the operations team have worked their magic and it is ready to go back in the ocean:

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Photo: SmartBay Observatory sensors and instruments after maintenance work has been carried out

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Photo: The SmartBay Observatory ready to go back to Galway Bay after maintenance work has been carried out

Why is the SmartBay Observatory in Galway Bay?

There are a number of reasons for its location in Galway Bay.

1) As the site is sheltered by the Aran Islands it provides less challenging sea conditions than you might find in other locations along the Wild Atlantic Way, making it the perfect location for this world-class facility.

2) The sandy seabed makes it a perfect site for locating the observatory and fibre optic cable.

3) Galway is a hub of marine activity and research, which provides a large audience of researchers and industry who can work with the instruments and data from the SmartBay Observatory to develop new science and technology.

4) Located close to the Galway Port so that it is easily accessible for maintenance by the Operations Team from the Marine Institute and P&O.

Who is the SmartBay Observatory for? Who uses it?

The SmartBay Observatory is for all of us; it was funded with public money and consequently the ocean data collected by the observatory is free for use by anyone interested in it. Of course, for some people, the data makes more sense than for others. For instance, oceanographers use the data from the observatory to validate their models of ocean circulation in the bay, or to assess the quality of the seawater, or to understand how salmon enters or leaves the bay. Likewise, companies working in the ocean sensing industry can use the data to compare with the data acquired by their own sensors, and thus fine-tune their instruments. They can also use the observatory as a platform for installing and testing their devices. But most of us like to watch cool stuff going on underwater captured by the camera.

The SmartBay Observatory is used for science by students and researchers from Ireland and around the world. For example, researchers from Dublin City University (DCU) used the camera footage in a recent project funded by the Marine Institute National Infrastructure Access Programme (NIAP) to develop new image analysis techniques to identify individual species from footage recorded at the test site. This project has helped advance machine learning capabilities and also develop a better understanding of the marine environment. In another NIAP project, Scientists from the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT) are using the SmartBay Observatory to validate the integration of environmental DNA (eDNA) approaches for monitoring marine biodiversity in the bay. eDNA is an emerging tool that relies on the acquisition of nucleic acids (also known as DNA and RNA) from environmental samples, such as water, to virtually detect any species that have shed 'biological traces' and hence occur in a specific environment.

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Image: A sample frame of the benchmark dataset, which provides the ground truth for deep learning model development by DCU.

International researchers also come from abroad to test their sensors and technologies at the observatory through Transnational Access Programmes such as JERICO-Next funded by the European Commission’s H2020 Research and Innovation Programme. Through this project the observatory was involved in a comparative study called MICROPLASTOX, looking at the amount of microplastics in several parts of the world’s oceans. The observatory provided a platform for the installation of a very fine mesh net, to capture microplastics floating in the seawater. Other examples include a special underwater camera system developed by researchers in Italy through the ADVANCE Project. The camera was developed to capture images of Norwegian lobsters in the vicinity of the observatory. Some behaviours of these animals were observed for the first time ever using the cameras at the SmartBay Observatory. Companies in the marine instrumentation sector also use the facility to validate their new instruments against standard instrumentation such as the SYRINX project.

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Image Credit: The Marine Institute

Did you know that 71% of the earth’s surface is covered by the ocean, but 95% of it is still unexplored? This is what makes infrastructures like the SmartBay Observatory so important. The data from the SmartBay Observatory is used by researchers, scientists, businesses, policymakers and for education and outreach purposes. The information from the observatory contributes to environmental monitoring and accelerates marine developments in ocean technology, IoT and ocean energy.