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Underwater Light Show: The Wonders of Bioluminescence

Dr. Edith Widder has made a career documenting and studying the amazing phenomenon that lights up the dark sea

smithsonian.com

Edith Widder was doing pretty well for herself. She had just completed her Ph.D. in neurobiology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. With a postdoc position lined up in a lab in Madison, Wisconsin, things were on course. But then came an opportunity she couldn’t refuse: a deep-sea dive in a single-person submersible diving suit called a Wasp. After training in a tank with a group of scientists, she ventured out for the first time in the Santa Barbara Channel.

“It was an evening dive,” Widder told an audience in 2010. “I went to a depth of 880 feet and turned out the lights.” Widder said she knew she would observe the underwater phenomenon of animals chemically producing light known as bioluminescence. ”But I was totally unprepared for how much there was, and how spectacular it was.”

Widder has since gone on to become a leader in the field, co-patenting a measurement device that the Navy considers the industry standard. “There was no such thing as a career path in bioluminescence but it didn’t matter—I was hooked,” wrote Widder on her site for the Ocean Research and Conservation Association, which she co-founded in 2005.

The applications of her research have been far-reaching. By beginning to understand bioluminescence as a language of light, Widder has helped develop more sensitive and less disruptive techniques for better observation. Her underwater camera, the Eye in the Sea, uses lights to mimic the behavior observed in jellyfish. Widder told the New York Times that it took just 86 seconds after the lights went on to discover a completely new, never-before-seen squid. She’s also found a way to use bioluminescent bacteria levels to measure water pollution.

Widder will be speaking at the Natural History Museum on November 8th, sharing footage of her finds and discussing the efforts of her organization.

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About Leah Binkovitz
Leah Binkovitz

Leah Binkovitz is a Stone & Holt Weeks Fellow at Washington Post and NPR. Previously, she was a contributing writer and editorial intern for the At the Smithsonian section of Smithsonian magazine.

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