Natural Resources Department’s
 ‘Starlight’ Provides Window On Depths Below

by William F. Galvin

HARWICH — The natural resources department is keeping an eye on the ocean floor these days, thanks to a local resident with expertise in the operation of underwater detection devices.

Tom Leach displays the Starlight

Tom Leach displays the "Starlight."

Natural Resources Officer Thomas Leach and resident Will Bennett are sharing their knowledge in an effort to get a better look at the ocean bottom, or if need be the murky depths of local ponds. It’s not rocket science, but to the casual observer it may look that way.

The natural resource department purchased an underwater video camera to use examining shellfish stocks, defining the presence of eel grass before dredge projects, identifying errant equipment serving as obstacles in channels and mooring fields and for general use around the town marina. It could, for instance, assist in identifying underwater problems such as blowouts in the bubbler system used to protect pilings from winter ice.

Bennett, who is an inventor with 17 national and international patents and experience in developing underwater detection systems, saw the camera and agreed to design a vehicle, at no cost to the town, that would allow the camera to be towed at specific levels above the bottom of a water body, providing a clear view of the habitat.

"I love the challenge of turning something around and making it work," said Bennett, who comes from a family with a long line of inventors. Bennett moved to the Cape in the early 1960s and went into business with his brother, Fred, running Old Harbor Marine Service in Chatham. He later moved to Maine where he worked part-time with the state police training search and rescue dogs. He has returned to Harwich and still has search and rescue assistance on his mind.

His expertise was honed in his hometown of Marion 40 years ago when he worked for Braincon Corp., which specialized in oceanographic work when the science was "in its infancy." He said they did a lot of work for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and Scripps Institute in bathythermographic detection. He also worked on a project for EDO-Canada, designing underwater submarine sound detection equipment.

During that period, said Bennett, they designed a V-fin vehicle that looks like a miniature F-16 fighter plane, in which detection devices could be placed and towed through the water at depths controlled by aileron flaps.

With the video camera purchased by the natural resources department, Bennett reconstructed the V-fin vehicle, using PBC pipe for the fuselage, aluminum for the wings and two fiberglass aileron. "Starlight" was born.

The camera is designed for low light use, making it effective in the waters of Nantucket Sound. Bennett said it could also be effectively used searching the depths of Long Pond. The vessel allows for two laser lights to be strapped onto the wings for use at night. Starlight is very manageable, with a wing span of less than three feet.

"It’s phenomenal to see the distance you can cover," said Leach on Thursday while running Starlight three feet above the 12-foot-deep bottom in Nantucket Sound outside Saquatucket Harbor. Stationed at a donated monitor, complete with a VCR, to record its probe, Leach marveled at Starlight’s ability to clearly capture the benthic habitat.

"It functions in wicked low light," the natural resource officer said. "If I cover it (the lense) with my hand and there is sunlight on the back of my hand, I can see that sunlight."

While Leach sees its application as multipurpose, Bennett, who has worked for many years in search and rescue related fields, sees the equipment as a breakthrough in searching for drowning victims, especially in murky waters where divers have limited vision.