The Spy That Never Sleeps
Turning guesswork into a true understanding of the language of bioluminescence will require much more data. Some of that promises to come from a new version of the Eye that was deployed in January as part of the Monterey Accelerated Research System (MARS), an underwater observatory in Monterey Bay off the coast of California. The MARS observatory, a metal structure with a base measuring about 12 feet by 15 feet, rests quietly on the ocean floor and provides a docking station for the Eye. Connected by a power cable from shore, the Eye is active round the clock, sending back information about life more than half a mile under the sea. “We control the Eye from shore,” Widder says. “We are also using an electronic jellyfish [which mimics bioluminescence] and various sensors to observe naturally occurring activity. It is our first real window into the deep sea, and it is going to be open all the time.”
The MARS version of the Eye presents an unfamiliar problem for Widder: too much data. “We can’t look at it all,” she says. In response, engineers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute have developed image-analysis software to detect activity, so the camera records only when something is moving past it. Those segments are then posted online. Widder and others are analyzing these images from their labs; they are also working with educators to incorporate the video into their curricula so students can watch the images and post observations. “The Monterey Canyon isn’t quite as rich an area as a place like the Brine Pool,” Widder says, “but we should have a chance to figure out more about what bioluminescent animals are saying to each other.”
Findings from other camera systems are helping to fill in our picture of deep-sea communication. Scientists at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland are running experiments with an automated submersible that has a camera designed to record bioluminescent signals as it descends through the ocean and lands on the seafloor. And in 2005, Tsunemi Kubodera, a zoologist at the National Science Museum in Japan, used a high-definition video system to study the elusive Taningia danae, a huge, eight-armed, bioluminescent squid that exceeds seven feet in length. In a series of experiments, Kubodera’s camera system was suspended from ships near Chichijima Island in the North Pacific and recorded video at various depths, down to 3,100 feet. It captured the first live images of Taningia in its natural habitat.
Like Widder’s Eye, Kubodera’s system carried bait and used colored light to attract predators. One or two torchlights were also attached to the bait rigging. Kubodera’s videos, which captured 14 attack behaviors, showed that as a squid approached, it sometimes emitted a short flash from photophores (light-producing organs) on the tips of its arms, perhaps in an effort to blind its prey or to illuminate it for easier capture. Most interesting to the researchers, the squid sometimes produced a long glow and several short ones as it swam around the bait but did not attack. “We believe that this behavior may represent attempts at communication,” the researchers write. The light given off by the torches attached to the bait, they suggested, may resemble the long glow of a squid’s photophores, leading it to believe it was approaching a potential mate. When the torchlights didn’t respond to the squid’s signal, the animal moved on.
Even as scientists begin to decipher the light signals of deep ocean life, their work may be threatened by the onslaught of human disruptions—everything from sonar to carbon dioxide, which causes acidification. That is one reason why Widder plans to take a version of her technology to Australia to explore a region that is relatively pristine and has never been visited by submersibles. As a cofounder of ORCA, devoted to scientific inquiry about the health of the world’s oceans, she recognizes that time is of the essence for studying as much of the deep-sea ecosystem as she can right now.
The earth’s oceans are not just fragile but forbidding, as difficult to study as distant galaxies. Like the Hubble Space Telescope, the Eye-in-the-Sea is a promising step toward bringing that world into view. It is, as Widder’s colleague Sönke Johnsen says, “a new way to get inside the mind of nature.” Thanks to Widder and others, the secret messages of the sea’s most elusive creatures may not remain secret for long.