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Trevor Sholly created a series of fly-by views of Lake Champlain to include in a virtual tour of the lake's underwater terrain. This one, taken from the west, shows the Burlington Bay. A range of four colors depicts the varying depths of the water, the blue end of the spectrum representing the deepest waters, and the red the shallowest. Image by Trevor Sholly courtesy of Middlebury College.

Students create virtual tour of Lake Champlain's underwater landscape

October 16, 2006

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. - The submerged landscape of Lake Champlain, sheltering shipwrecks and other mysteries, was for untold generations a shadowy world of scantly charted territory. From the surface, few people have been able to clearly understand what lies beneath - until now. With the help of a new database of more than 735,000 bathymetric measurements, Middlebury College students are creating a virtual tour to illuminate the depths of the 13,000-year-old lake for modern-day boaters, divers and landlubbers alike.

Working with Middlebury College Visiting Assistant Professor of Geology Tom Manley, senior Nate Vandal started the project during the college's four-week winter term last January.  The previous summer, Manley had completed an eight-year study called "The Whole Lake Survey," working with his wife and colleague Middlebury College Professor of Geology Pat Manley and a team of researchers assembled with the help of Arthur B. Cohn, executive director of the Vergennes-based Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. The team utilized new side-scan sonar technology and the global positioning system (GPS) to create the most extensive bathymetric map ever made of the lake, which stretches 120 miles along the border between Vermont and New York. With the study's results, Vandal began the laborious task of manipulating the bathymetric data into images that would make up the virtual tour.

The eight-year Whole Lake Study, gathering more than 735,000 depth measurements, resulted in the most comprehensive bathymetric map ever created of Lake Champlain. Image courtesy of Middlebury College.

Environmental studies major Trevor Sholly picked up the project from Vandal during the following spring term, continuing a task that requires more than 60 hours of processing to render approximately 1,200 images into 40 seconds of high definition virtual tour. "Sixty hours for 40 seconds is more than a big job," said Sholly. "It's a labor of love."

After Sholly graduated from Middlebury last May, the reins passed to senior Suzanne Manugian, an environmental studies major who began work on the project in June 2006. While struggling with technical glitches, she and Tom Manley wrote the story board in preparation for adding narrative to the film.

"We'll highlight both the history of the area as well as current work," she said. "We'll make some serious progress this fall and are keeping our fingers crossed for technical benevolence! Miles and miles to go, and I'm excited at the prospect."

The students' work will transform the new bathymetric map into a three-dimensional virtual tour that allows the viewer to "swim" the lake. According to Sholly, the result will be well worth the work: a fish-eye view of the ledges, hollows, sandbars, reefs and even shipwrecks that make up Lake Champlain's marine terrain. The tour's visual representation of real geologic data will benefit seasoned researchers and young students alike - as well as entertain and inform anyone else interested in the lake. 

To complete the Whole Lake Study, the Manleys' research team included numerous Middlebury students over the eight-year period. The students worked with Tom Manley each fall as part of his introductory oceanography class, spending hours on the two research vessels used for the survey, the college's R/V Baldwin and the privately-owned R/V Neptune, which is based in Burlington. The students and other researchers making up the team traversed the entire footprint of the lake, taking bathymetric measurements in a close grid that resulted in the lake's important data set. The data is a resource for the state as well as independent researchers across the nation, providing an unprecedented opportunity for projects that explore the important fresh water body. Lake Champlain is the sixth largest lake in the nation, the birthplace in 1776 of the U.S. Navy, and home to 81 species of fish, 318 species of birds, 57 of mammals, 21 of amphibians and 20 species of reptiles.

"The general public is especially intrigued by the wrecks and their histories," said Sholly. "During the course of the Whole Lake Survey, 70 new wrecks were found on the Lake Champlain floor."

To create the virtual tour from the scientific data, the students worked with the Middlebury geology department's equipment and software. "We have to use a lot of different, complicated programs in order to be able to create the movie-like effects," said Sholly. "First, I created digital images from the bathymetry data, and then, by using one program called Fledermaus, which is commonly employed for military, commercial and university research, and another program called DMagic, I could stitch them together to create motion.

"I didn't receive any formal training for the Fledermaus program, so I had to play around with the system and relied a lot on what I got out of a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) course that's offered by the college's geography department," he said.

The students' high definition images will result in a three-dimensional, visual navigation that brings the viewer in from outer space, with Earth showing first as a tiny speck that grows to reveal oceans, land masses and finally Lake Champlain. The film tours the lake from above, at eye-level and ultimately into its waters and through its submerged landscape.