Written by: Judith Lavoie

With the flick of a switch yesterday, the international spotlight focused on the mysterious world of the deep ocean off the coast of B.C.

After a decade of planning, research and input from scientists of all disciplines, led by the University of Victoria, NEPTUNE Canada, the world's first cabled ocean observatory taking in an entire region, came on line.

Over the next 25 years, NEPTUNE — which stands for North-East Pacific Time-series Undersea Experiments — will deliver real-time scientific data to students and scientists all over the world.

"We are truly at the start of a new era — an era of wiring the ocean," said director Chris Barnes.

The data, available free, will help develop public policy on climate change, earthquakes and tsunamis, management of fish stocks and resource development, he said. "This will transform ocean science. The socio-economic benefits are profound."

Scientists traded superlatives as they anticipated the "fire hose" of information from NEPTUNE.

"There's nothing else like it anywhere else," said Jozee Sarrazin of the French Research Institute for the Study of the Sea, who will study the effect of catastrophic disturbances such as underwater landslides on undersea fauna.

Already, the instruments have detected tsunami waves from the Samoan earthquake in September, said Richard Thomson of the Institute of Ocean Sciences.

"It will help us understand and provide warning of tsunamis in western Canada and, for that, I think we should be eternally grateful," he said.

NEPTUNE will provide information about one of the most active underwater earthquake areas in the world, but for now, will not help predict when earthquakes will strike, said Garry Rogers of the Geological Survey of Canada.

"The real answer is we don't know what we are going to find. We are moving to a new environment, and when we do that, we are bound to discover new things," he said.

The backbone of the ocean observatory is an 800-kilometre loop of powered fibre-optic cable installed on the seabed off the west coast of Vancouver Island, connecting to a shore station at Port Alberni.

Information is fed back, at the rate of 10 gigabytes a second, to NEPTUNE headquarters at UVic.

Data is gathered by 60 instruments with 280 sensors, placed at depths ranging from 17 metres to 2.7 kilometres. More instruments will be added each year, including some at volcanic Endeavour Ridge.

NEPTUNE, funded by the federal and provincial governments, cost $100 million to build. The federal Canada Foundation for Innovation has committed $24 million over the next two years to operating costs.

Iain Black, provincial Minister of Small Business, Technology and Economic Development, officially turned on the stream of data, but the University of Victoria audience, plus an online audience from around the world, did not get to see what was happening under the ocean at that second as organizers were worried about last-minute glitches.

Grade 6 students in the audience from Central middle school represent the generation that will benefit most from scientific knowledge, Black said.

"I think it is cool," said 10-year-old Scarlet Redpath, a Central student.

"It will be even more interesting when we are older and can understand it more. We are going to start learning about different extreme things like earthquakes and tsunamis."

Former federal cabinet minister David Anderson, who helped shepherd the project through its early days, said the $100-million cost is a bargain compared to the billions of dollars in damage a tsunami could do in B.C.

"Seventy per cent of the earth's surface is water and we know virtually nothing about it. This is a whole new chapter in ocean exploration and it is coming at a particularly critical time because of the impact of the oceans on climate change," he said.

For more information, go to www.neptunecanada.ca