In an interview with Yale Environment 360, marine biologist Edith Widder talks about her pioneering research into the world of bioluminescent organisms in the deep oceans and warns of the dangers, from trawling to oil drilling, that imperil this hidden realm.
Until recently, the depths of the world’s oceans remained almost entirely unexplored. But advances in submersible technology are increasingly giving scientists a window into this little-known universe. One of the leaders in this exploration is marine biologist Edith Widder, who has extensively studied bioluminescent, or light-producing, organisms that use this trait to communicate, defend themselves, and hunt in darkness. Among other things, Widder has worked with engineers to develop highly sensitive deep-sea light meters and special cameras, like the remotely operated Eye-in-the-Sea, which allow for real-time monitoring of the seafloor.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Widder — author of the recently published book Below the Edge of Darkness: A Memoir of Exploring Light and Life in the Deep Sea — talks about the surprising strategies that bioluminescent creatures employ to survive in a world without light, explains why deep-sea research remains woefully underfunded, and laments that with the advent of deep-sea fishing, mining and oil drilling, “we’re exploiting the [deep] ocean before we even know what’s in it. Those of us that have been in submersibles and seen … these gorgeous undersea gardens filled with bioluminescent corals that have just been turned into rubble [by trawling], it’s gut-wrenching.”
Still, despite the deteriorating state of the world’s oceans, Widder, co-founder of the Ocean Research and Conservation Association, said she remains hopeful that the assault on marine environments can be turned around: “Explorers have to be optimists. You’re constantly facing setbacks and difficulties and problems. And you have to be a problem solver.”
Yale Environment 360: You almost died after surgery when you were a freshman in college. You temporarily went blind. Does your professional interest in light stem in any way from that experience?
Edith Widder: There’s no question that vision becomes so precious when you’re deprived of it. I do think that my experience of being blind helped me when I was trying to think about what life must be like for animals in that world of so much darkness with just occasional flashes of light, which is what my world was like for a while.
e360: The deep sea is sometimes referred to as a world of eternal darkness, but when you made your first deep dive, you write that it was like the Fourth of July down there.
Widder: Well, I knew there would be bioluminescence. I didn’t discover it by any means. I just was completely unprepared for how much there was, for this fireworks display that surrounded me and was set off by any movement…
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