Holiday Zen: the sea’s glittering lights

A favorite sea phenomenon – bioluminescence, or the living lights of the ocean.

Kick back and enjoy a moment of deep sea wonder in this holiday season:

It never gets old for many, including Dr. Edith Widder, who studies bioluminescence in sea creatures:

“During my first open ocean dive, I went down to 800 feet and turned out the lights. I knew I would see bioluminescence, but I was totally unprepared for how much. It was incredible! There were explosions of light everywhere, like being in the middle of a silent fireworks display.”

Watch scientists on The Ocean Portal describe the bioluminescence they’ve encountered in the sea, read The Naked Scientists’ interview with Dr. Widder, and soak up info from The Bioluminescence Web Page by UCSB.

Pic o’ the week – bathypelagic ctenophore

It looks like a molar tooth drenched in gold, or maybe a metallic mylar birthday balloon. But this is a bathypelagic ctenophore, photographed near the Mid-Atlantic Ridge of the Atlantic Ocean. The ‘bathypelagic zone’ is the layer of the ocean about 3,000 – 13,000 feet deep, sometimes called “The Midnight Zone”, because there is no light at these depths.

Ctenophores are known to many as comb jellyfish – they have eight rows of cilia that look like combs, which they use to move through the sea. Researchers say this one anchors to the seafloor with its tentacles.

Researchers collaborating on the Census of Marine Life returned from an expedition to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, brimming with findings of new creatures, reporting on unexpected abundance of some already-known creatures, and sharing stunning photos (like this one) with the world.

“This expedition has revolutionised our thinking about deep-sea life in the Atlantic Ocean. It shows that we cannot just study what lives around the edges of the ocean and ignore the vast array of animals living on the slopes and valleys in the middle of the Ocean,” said Professor Monty Priede, Director of the University of Aberdeen’s Oceanlab.

Photo by David Shale, courtesy University of Aberdeen

Pic o’ the week – transparent sea cucumber, Gulf of Mexico

A transparent sea cucumber, photographed 1.7 miles down (2,750 meters) in the Northern Gulf of Mexico. Scientists found this transparent sea cucumber, Enypniastes, creeping forward on its many tentacles at less than 1 inch (2 cm) per minute while sweeping detritus-rich sediment into its mouth. From LiveScience; photo by Larry Madin, Woods Hole Oceanographic Inst.


The fact that the BP oil leak is gushing a mile underwater has kept the incident from becoming the complete public relations disaster it would be if a fraction of the oil geyser’s output was coming anywhere near lots of shore or humans.

This is divine luck for BP right now.

But it’s the opposite for the wildly diverse and biologically important life in the Gulf of Mexico’s deep waters.

The creatures of the deep sea are not entirely documented nor understood by researchers. Complex, labor-intensive and invaluable expeditions have been regularly trying to find these creatures, document them, and study their wondrous biologies, including bioluminescence and visual polarization. Thousands and thousands of creatures somehow thrive in darkness. Some are so delicate, their bodies disintegrate when scientists try to capture them for study.

The deep sea “is the Earth’s largest continuous ecosystem and largest habitat for life. It is also the least studied,” said researcher Chris German of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, co-chair of Biogeography of Deep-Water Chemosynthetic Systems project, part of the global 10-year Census of Marine Life.

It’s difficult to know how the sea life anywhere near the mile-deep oil spigot – or those being soaked in BP’s chemical dispersant (Corexit 9500) – will live through it. And even harder to understand how the damage at those depths could be documented.

It will be the silent, unmarked devastation of the Deepwater Horizon blowout. We’ll probably never know the magnitude of destruction at depth.


Pic o’ the week – bioluminescent jellyfish

Our ocean pic of the week — a planktonic jellyfish with bright green fluorescent tentacles. The red fluorescence in the middle of the jellyfish is from chlorophyll in a recent meal of algae.

NOAA Ocean Explorer: Islands in the Stream 2002

This pic is from NOAA’s Operation Deep Scope 2005 Expedition – a research cruise in the Gulf of Mexico’s deep waters off Florida.

Some scientists on the expedition set out to study light in the ocean – color, fluorescence, polarization, vision and bioluminescence.

Dr. Edith Widder, a senior scientist on the trip, said her first sight of luminescence in the ocean’s depths changed her life:

“Seeing lights in the ocean – the living lights of bioluminescence observed from a submersible – is the event that set me on my uncommon career path … I was also convinced that bioluminescence had to be one of the most beautiful and important phenomena in the ocean. It seemed like it was everywhere and there was so much of it.”

Image courtesy Dr. Mikhail Matz and NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration & Research