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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

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That dive marked the rare case where chance, rather than force of will, catalyzed one of Widder’s adventures. She studied biology at Tufts and received a PhD in neurobiology from the University of California at Santa Barbara. As a graduate student, she worked on the membrane biophysics of dinoflagellates, which piqued her interest in bioluminescence, and when her adviser received a grant for a spectrophotometer, a temperamental machine used to measure light, she “just started messing with it to figure it out” and “became the lab expert.” Another scientist requisitioned the new gadget for a 1982 research cruise off the coast of California; Widder went as part of the package.

She had unwittingly stowed away on a landmark mission. Until that time, marine biologists (William Beebe and a few others excepted) had relied on net samples to glimpse deep-sea life, a rather misleading method: Light-bearers, especially, are so delicate they may disintegrate in standard nets, often exhausting their bioluminescence before they reach the surface. But this trip would deploy the WASP, a motorized “atmospheric dive suit” that offshore oil companies had developed to repair underwater rigs. Biologists wanted to use it to observe sea animals instead.

Bruce Robison, the trip’s chief scientist, now at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, had handpicked a crack team of scientists, mostly young, gung-ho and male, as potential WASP pilots. One by one they descended more than 1,000 feet in the suit, tethered to the ship by a long cable, while Widder remained at the surface, listening to their jubilant whoops over the radio. “I was just a postdoc, pretty low on the totem pole,” she says. Toward the end of the voyage, Robison asked Widder, by then nearly frantic with enthusiasm, if she wanted to train as a pilot for the next trip.

Her first dive, in the Santa Barbara Channel in 1984, was at sunset. As she sank, the view changed from cornflower blue to cobalt to black. Even with crushing tons of water overhead, she did not experience the clammy panic that makes some pilots’ first dive their last. Passing ethereal jellyfish and shrimp with ultralong antennae that they appeared to ride like skis, she drifted down 880 feet, where sunshine was just a smoggy haze overhead. Then, “I turned out the lights.”

She was hoping for a flash here, a flash there. But what she saw in the darkness rivaled Van Gogh’s Starry Night—plumes and blossoms and flourishes of brilliance. “There were explosions of light all around, and sparks and swirls and great chains of what looked like Japanese lanterns,” she remembers. Light popped, smoked and splintered: “I was enveloped. Everything was glowing. I couldn’t distinguish one light from another. It was just a variety of things making light, different shapes, different kinetics, mostly blue, and just so much of it. That’s what astonished me.”

Why was there so much light? Who was making it? What were they saying? Why wasn’t anybody studying this stuff? “It seemed like an insane use of energy, and evolution is not insane,” she says. “It’s parsimonious.” All too soon the surface crew began winching her in.

On a subsequent expedition to Monterey Canyon she would pilot a dozen five-hour dives, and with each descent she grew more spellbound. Sometimes, the mystery animals outside were so bright that Widder swore the diving suit was releasing arcs of electricity into the surrounding water. Once, “the whole suit lit up.” What she now believes was a 20-foot siphonophore—a kind of jellyfish colony—was passing overheard, light cascading from one end to the other. “I could read every single dial and gauge inside the suit by its light,” Widder remembers. “It was breathtaking.” It went on glowing for 45 seconds.

She’d lashed a blue light to the front of the WASP, hoping to stimulate an animal response. Underwater, the rod blinked frenetically, but the animals all ignored her. “I’m sitting in the dark with this bright blue glowing thing,” Widder says. “I just couldn’t believe nothing was paying attention to it.”

Decoding the bioluminescent lexicon would become her life’s work. Gradually, it dawned on her that before she learned to speak with light, she needed to listen.

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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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