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Jellyfish glow with the flow in the Gulf of Maine and the Weddell Sea. (David Shale / NPL/ Minden Pictures / Ingo Arndt / Minden Pictures)

Bioluminescence: Light Is Much Better, Down Where It’s Wetter

From tracking a giant squid to decoding jellyfish alarms in the Gulf, a depth-defying scientist plunges under the sea

But already it’s late afternoon, and these dazzling shades won’t last long. As darkness starts to fall over the Bahamas, the reef’s rainbow fades. The water looks to be filling with gray smoke. “We’ve lost the reds and the oranges,” Widder says as the sub noses through the sudden fog. “You can still see yellow, then that disappears, then you lose green. Soon all you’re left with is blue.” (Almost all bioluminescent creatures manufacture blue light: Its short wavelengths penetrate farthest in seawater.) Some of the animals grow more active as darkness falls. Deep in the chambers of the now-ashen reef, hungry fish stir.

Then our search is cut short by a staticky voice over the radio, summoning us back to the surface because of the bad weather, and we have no choice.

Even as we climb toward the sunset, Widder keeps craning her neck, looking above and behind. “Many discoveries happen just by catching something out of the corner of your eye,” she says. She tells us about William Beebe, the early 20th-century naturalist and explorer and a personal hero of hers, who descended in a steel bathysphere and was the first to watch deep-sea animals in the wild, including what must have been bioluminescent creatures that “exploded” in “an outpouring of fluid flame.” Because he claimed to see so many animals in a short time, scientists later questioned his findings. “I believe he saw what he said he saw,” Widder says. And she has seen much more.

***

The party where I first meet Widder is at a house in Vero Beach, Florida. The exterior is roped in blue lights and the inside is an inferno of tea lights, blue laser lights and flaming rum drinks. Behind the bar a biologist mixes Manhattans by black light. (There are widespread complaints that he is too exact with the whiskey measurement.) A remote-controlled flying Mylar balloon shark, meant to be a bioluminescent species called a cookie-cutter, is making the rounds, its belly coated in glow-in-the-dark paint.

Barely five feet tall but owning the crowd, Widder is a true luminary tonight. She wears a blue glitter-encrusted vest and a headdress of glow sticks. Bright fishing lures adorn her cropped hair. In this ridiculous get-up, she somehow appears perfectly coiffed. She has, 30 years into her deep-sea career, explored waters off the coasts of Africa, Hawaii and England, from the West Alboran Sea to the Sea of Cortez to the South Atlantic Bight. She has consulted Fidel Castro about the best way to prepare lobster (not with wine, in his opinion). She has set sail with Leonardo DiCaprio and Daryl Hannah for a save-the-ocean celebrity event. But for much of her career, she was the unusual one aboard: Many of the research vessels that she frequented in the early days had only ever carried men. Old salts were amused to see that she could tie a bowline knot. And some scientists didn’t realize for years that E. A. Widder, who published with devastating frequency and to great acclaim, was a young woman.

The party is a fund-raiser for her nonprofit, the Ocean Research and Conservation Association (ORCA), based in nearby Fort Pierce. ORCA’s mission is to monitor coastal pollution, particularly in the Indian River Lagoon. Widder fights back tears while she tells the crowd about dolphins dying from pollution in waters just outside the door. Mullet are showing up with lesions, manatees grow tumors. Widder worries about the implications for human health, too. “

When I started ORCA, it was about protecting the ocean I loved,” she says. “But it’s also about protecting ourselves.”

The next morning, Widder and I meet at ORCA headquarters, a former Coast Guard building with a shell-pink roof. On Widder’s crowded bookshelf, two photographs face each other. One shows her mother, a child of Canadian wheat farmers, driving a team of four horses across the Saskatchewan prairie. Her mother was a gifted mathematician, but her career always came second to that of her husband, who headed Harvard University’s math department. She often reminded young Edith of the biblical story of Martha, who was stuck doing dishes when Jesus came to visit. “She told me that you need to be there when the great thinker is in town, not in the kitchen,” Widder remembers. When she was 11, her father took a yearlong sabbatical and the family traveled the world. In Paris, Widder vowed to become an artist; in Egypt, an archaeologist. On the Fijian reefs, where she ogled giant clams and cornered a lionfish (“I didn’t realize it was poisonous”), the ocean captured her heart. (On the same trip, in poverty-stricken Bangladesh, she decided never to have children; she and her husband, David, have kept that promise.)

Next to the photograph of her mother and the horse-drawn plow is one of Widder herself. She’s sealed in a bulky one-person submersible diving suit, more like an astronaut’s spacesuit than any normal diving gear. She is about to embark on one of her first deep-sea dives, and she’s beaming.

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About Abigail Tucker

A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker is writing a book about the house cat.

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