A deep-sea explorer sheds light on the world’s fascinating and fragile oceans
In this episode of Bookish, Tufts multimedia producer Anna Miller talks with pioneering marine biologist Edie Widder, A73, about her new memoir, Below the Edge of Darkness.
Anna Miller: Edie Widder, Tufts Class of 1973, is one of the few people in the world who has been to the bottom of the ocean. She’s a deep-sea ocean explorer, and among many discoveries, was the first person to ever capture a giant squid on camera.
Edie Widder: Giant squids—they're pretty big. So this one, if it had had its tentacles intact, fully extended, would've been as tall as a two-story building, and they can grow as tall as a four-story building. And then it would shift its color from bronze to brushed aluminum. It was just so spectacular and awe-inspiring. Here was this creature—it was that enormous and had never been seen in its natural habitat. What better example could you have of how poorly we have done at exploring our own planet?
Miller: In today’s episode of Bookish—a series where we highlight Tufts authors—we’ll hear from Edie Widder, who is the CEO and senior scientist at the Ocean Research and Conservation Association. She has spent most of her career as a deep-sea biologist and is a pioneer in the field of bioluminescence research—studying how and why deep-sea creatures make their own light.
Over the years, she has created groundbreaking technology to capture never-before-seen behaviors and discovered even new species in our oceans. She recently wrote a book about her life’s work titled Below the Edge of Darkness: A Memoir of Exploring Light and Life in the Deep Sea.
Widder: When you enter the ocean in a submersible, the first thing you notice is how the colors change dramatically. They go from blue-green near the surface, to richer and richer blues, ’til you're down to indigo blue, and then down into blackness. And you start seeing these sparks of blue-green flashes all around you. And that's the magic for me—all of this bioluminescence that is so much a part of life on Earth because it's so much a part of our ocean and that so few people know anything about.
My first dive in a submersible was in a diving suit called WASP, and I made a dive in the Santa Barbara channel, and it was an evening dive. I went down to 800 feet and turned out the lights, and I was just blown away. Later when I was asked what it was like down there, I blurted out, “It's like the Fourth of July,” which got quoted in a local newspaper, and for which I took a considerable amount of ribbing from my colleagues.
But I've actually lost count of the number of times over the years that I've taken people for a dive and that's exactly how they describe it. It's like the Fourth of July, only it's better because you're not just observing this fireworks display from a distance, you're right in the center of it. In fact, you're part of it, because every move you make triggers these flashes and glows with sparks that look just like when you throw a log on a campfire. Only these are icy blue embers. It's breathtaking, and it's a lot of energy. That's the thing that struck me. This takes a lot of energy. What the heck is this all about? That there are so many animals doing this.
Miller: What kinds of animals are capable of bioluminescence? In your book, you talk about this wide array of species that are capable of making light.
Widder: My first expedition on a ship, a trolling expedition, we were bringing up deep-sea animals, and we were actually bringing them up alive because we had a net that was fitted with a special cod end that closed at depth and kept the animals cold. A lot of people think when you bring the animals up, they die from the pressure change. It's not so much the pressure change, as the temperature change. If you can keep them cold, you can sometimes keep them alive for short periods of time.
It seemed like just about everything we brought up made light. And this is actually true in all of the oceans of the world. The numbers are pretty staggering. About 75% of the animals that you bring up in a net—the fish, the squid, the shrimp, the worms, the jellyfish — make light, and they do it in order to help them survive in a dark world.
They do it to help them find food, either with built-in flashlights or a glowing lure like that scary-looking fish from “Finding Nemo.” They do it to attract mates with special flash patterns or specially shaped light organs. And they do it a lot for defense. For example, just the way a squid or an octopus will squirt an ink cloud into the face of a predator, a lot of these can squirt their bioluminescent chemicals, which are called Luciferins and Luciferases, into the face of a predator, temporarily blinding the predator while they swim away in the dark.
There are a lot of them that use it for camouflage. So in the open ocean environment where there's no trees or bushes to hide behind, being able to not have to swim down into the darkest, darkest depths to hide, is an energy saver. So a lot of animals produce light from their bellies that exactly matches the color and intensity of down-only sunlight. So they obliterate the shadow, the silhouette that they create that is the search image for most predators out in the open ocean environment. It’s a perfect camouflage. If a cloud goes over the sun and dims the sunlight, they dim their bioluminescence. They just disappear.
And then there are other kinds of defenses like burglar alarms where an animal has light organs for all of these different things and will use all of them all at once if they're caught in the clutches of a predator in order to make their predator visible to a larger predator and hopefully in the ensuing scuffle, they have an opportunity for escape.
Miller: What's one of your favorite creatures that you've seen on your dives over the years?
Widder: One of my favorites was a a deep-sea octopus that we discovered had glowing suckers. That was a major discovery in and of itself, but the thing that made it especially cool was when we examined those suckers’ light organs, we discovered that they were actually suckers turning into light organs, because we could see the vestigial muscle rings around the sucker. So this was an example of evolution caught in the act.
So you had an octopus that was on the bottom, using its suckers to hang onto things on the bottom. And then, for whatever reason, it got pushed out in the open deep-water environment where its suckers were no longer useful for hanging onto things on the bottom, but they were useful for one thing that an octopus will sometimes use its suckers for. They will throw their arms up over their heads to attract a mate. It's kind of like a wet T-shirt contest. “Hey look, what I've got.” And they developed this ability to make light.
So it probably was originally for sex, but then it evolved into another way to gather food because this octopus has a very peculiar diet. It survives almost entirely on copepods, which are kind of like the insects of the ocean. That would be like here in Florida, a raccoon living on a diet of mosquitoes. Yes, there's enough of them, but how the heck do you catch them? Well, this octopus has webbing between its arms. We've seen it hanging upside down in the water, like an upside down umbrella, and the idea is that it twinkles its sucker light organs to look like a patch of plankton, draws in the copepods, and then the octopus closes up its body, makes itself into kind of this big red balloon, and then pulls down its suckers, and squeezes the copepods toward its mouth where they've got a mucus layer around the mouth. Copepods become embedded in that, and then they can just consume them, kind of like this gourmet seafood aspic.
Miller: That's a pretty great animal to be your favorite!
Widder: It ended up on the cover of Nature Magazine and on a U.S. postage stamp. It was a major discovery.
Miller: I think what's so interesting about your book and your work is…. I think people think of the deep ocean as just being vast and empty, and dark, but you're kind of saying it's far from it, but we might not even know that these creatures exist.
Widder: Yeah. There are animals in every cubic meter of the ocean and every cubic meter of the ocean contains bioluminescence as well. The argument could be made that bioluminescence could be the most common form of communication on the planet. There are people that would argue with me about that, but still it's pretty huge.
Miller: Early on, I think when you were about 18 and you were a student at Tufts, I don't know if it was your freshman or sophomore year, you went in for back surgery and had an extremely horrific reaction and was in the ICU and had a near-death experience. Can you do talk about how that changed your view of not only life, but also did you apply any of what you learned to your life's work?
Widder: Yeah, my freshman year at Tufts was tough. It was really bad. During my college physical, they discovered my back was broken. I thought everybody had low back pain. I didn't know. I apparently jumped out of one too many trees when I was a kid, which I did a lot. And anyway, it was getting a lot worse, and I got through my first semester just barely, but I spent most of it having to study while lying on my back. The pain had gotten so bad.
So I went in for surgery for a spinal fusion. It went horribly wrong, and I got something called DIC, or disseminated intravascular coagulation, which made it appear like I was hemorrhaging everywhere. Some of the bleeding was in my eyes so I was blind when I came to, blind in my left eye for over a month. I mean, you know, it was spotty. I could see a little bit after a while, and then my right eye was a year. So, yeah, it was a huge struggle.
And I came out of the experience having kind of lost that optimism of youth that anything is possible. It was a realization that anything could be bad as well as good, and I started kind of this philosophy of always looking for a plan B. What was the alternative if this doesn't go right? And that has ended up actually benefiting me enormously during my career. I think I also learned how to handle panic pretty well in the hospital experience and that served me pretty well in some of my submersible experiences.
Miller: Can you talk about that? I mean, I'm just imagining being in this teeny little submersible, hundreds, if not thousands of feet deep, how would you not panic? How do you not get super claustrophobic?
Widder: One of the things that being in the hospital taught me was how to refocus and to just make yourself think about something else so that you don't, you know, run out of the room with your hair on fire. It's essential to be able to have that kind of control. And actually that was one of the concerns, the first dive I did in WASP, I said it was down 800 feet. It was a very short dive because the whole point of it was psychological. They wanted to find out who was going to panic because it is very common to have a claustrophobic response, especially in a little diving suit like that.
I was fine on the first dive so I was really looking forward to the next one. And I was going to go much deeper on the next dive, which was a couple days later. And as I was going down, I kept hearing this popping noise. And I talked to the controller, Charlie, up on the surface and described what I was hearing. And he said, oh, he thought that was probably this syntactic foam, which is the flotation that's used on the outside of the sub so it, you know, it wasn't integral to the safety of the sub. Don't worry about it. OK, um, so I, it was making me a little edgy, but I was fine with that.
And I got all the way down to the bottom, which at that part of the Santa Barbara channel was 1,880 feet, and Charlie calls down to say, “Congratulations, you just broke the world depth record in WASP.” And I said, “What the hell do you mean? I thought this thing was rated at 2,000 feet.” He said, “Yeah, but nobody's ever been.”
I suddenly had this extremely clear vision of how much water was over my head. It had taken more than a half an hour to get down, I think, an hour to get down there. Even if they pulled me at full speed, it would've been half an hour to get back to the surface. And I suddenly had a full-blown panic attack of “get me out of here.” And I was just about to give full throated voice to that emotion, and I managed to get under control by watching this jellyfish swimming by that was doing something interesting that I wanted to focus on. And that's what I did. I just refocused on the jellyfish and that got me through it.
Miller: Do you consider yourself like an adrenaline junkie? I mean, it seems like diving in submersibles is really dangerous. In the book, you discussed, you know, how they can leak, there can be freak accidents...
Widder: I am not an adrenaline junkie. I don't like being scared at all. I don't care to be doing dangerous things, but my curiosity just overwhelms any sense of fear and, you know, the opportunity to explore and learn new things.
One of my favorite courses at Tufts was taught by Ned Hodgson, who was a consummate storyteller. He started his physiology of behavior course by telling us about his golden retriever, who every winter would go down to the edge of the pond, jump on the edge of the ice until they broke off a piece, take it up to their patio, and then drop it so it shattered and then go back and do it again. And Ned proceeded to say, “I don't think we're ever going to understand the physiology of that behavior, but there are simpler systems that we can work on.”
I still remember him talking about what it was like to discover something that nobody in the history of the world had ever known before. So he had a paper published in, I think it was Science, about kind of figuring out the neurobiology of chemo-reception in insects. And he remembered what it was like to have that feeling and driving home that night, thinking, “You know, if I had a car accident, this knowledge would be lost to the world.” It's just, he got across that sense of excitement of exploration. And I thought, that's what I want. I want that experience.
But when I thought of it, I never thought of actually going down in submersibles or anything even that, you know, extreme. It was just knowledge, being on the edge of knowledge. But being on the edge of the physical explored world is even more incredible. And I just feel so fortunate to have had that experience and it always, always overwhelms any sense of fear. It's just so exciting to be able to see animals that nobody's ever seen before, see behaviors that nobody's ever seen before. Ned was right. It's an awesome feeling.
Miller: So how much do we know about the deep oceans? Like how much of the ocean have we actually explored?
Widder: If you ask people how much of the ocean we've explored, they usually give you the number of five percent. And that was a number that was true for awhile based on remote sonar mapping, so a ship at the surface would put down a swath of sonar and map the shape of the bottom of the ocean, but only with a resolution of about 100 meters, which is about a football field. So it's like laying a thick blanket over all of that contour. And then of course, you're not seeing any of the life with sonar. We've actually increased that number from five percent to past 20 percent now, and the goal is to get it up even further. But in terms of actually visiting the deep ocean to see what's there, the number is closer to point zero-five percent. So hardly at all.
Miller: So the fact that you're one of the very few people on the planet that has visited some of these spaces, is it similar to being an astronaut going into space, or is it kind of this last frontier? Is it exciting? Is it scary to see something that no one else has seen before?
Widder: One of my favorite movies is “The Martian,” because it so captures that essence of what it is to be an explorer. But the deep ocean is just so much better, because it's so full of life and just fantastic discoveries. It's not a dead barren rock.
Miller: And you've done other major discoveries with deep-sea creatures. And I didn't know it at the time, but I've seen your work in the news before with the deep-sea squid that you filmed for the first time. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Widder: Yeah, so the giant squid was this creature of legend for a long time known as the kraken. And we knew they really existed because they float when they die. So there had been dead specimens for years, but it became kind of the holy grail of natural history cinematography to film one in its natural habitat. And there had been lots of giant squid hunts, and there were giant squid hunters out there. I wasn't one of them, but I had developed a camera system called the Eye in the Sea, that was meant to be a stealth system that could view the animals without disturbing them. Because the primary way we know about life in the ocean is we either drag nets behind ships—and I defy you to name any other branch of science so dependent on thousands-of-years-old technology—or we go down with submersibles and remote operated vehicles, which have bright lights and noisy thrusters. And all the time I spent in submersibles, I kept thinking how many animals are there out there just beyond the range of my lights that can see me, but I can't see them?
So this Eye in the Sea camera system was battery powered, it sat on the bottom. That wasn't a new thing. Lots of people had tried that, but they always used white light. I wanted to use red light. And so I was experimenting with different colors of red light, but red light is absorbed very quickly in sea water. It’s tricky. And I was having a real hard time getting a light that would allow me to see the animals and they wouldn't see me. And I found inspiration from another one of my favorite deep-sea animals, which is called the stoplight fish.
And it's called that because it has very unusual bioluminescence. A lot of animals have these built in flashlights under their eyes that are blue. And most animals only see blue light in the deep sea because that's all there is to see mostly. But stoplight fish have also a red-light organ under the eye, and they can see red light. It has to be within fairly close range, but they can sneak up on animals that can't see it. And when I was first studying the stoplight fish, I discovered it had this unusual filter over the light organ that cut out all of the shorter wavelengths. So I copied that filter on the illumination system I was using on the Eye in the Sea and that proved to be the key to be able to see without being seen.
So that, plus an electronic jellyfish that I developed that imitated certain kinds of bioluminescent displays, turned out to be highly attractive to squid. In fact, the very first time I tested it was on an expedition in the Gulf of Mexico in 2004, and 86 second after I turned that lure on for the very first time, we recorded a squid over six feet long. It was completely new to science, couldn't even be placed in any known scientific family. So that's why I ended up getting invited on this major giant squid hunt off Japan in 2012. And it was my camera system that actually captured the first images of a giant squid in its natural habitat.
Miller: You've made hundreds of dives in submersibles, but do you have the most memorable dive or a particular one that stands out?
Widder: There was one instance where I was down in the sub and I had a meter inside that had a red LED readout. And I had my head down and was looking at it, and suddenly the whole inside of the suit lit up blue, brilliant blue. I could see every dial and gauge inside the sub by that blue light. And I looked up, and there was a chain of jellyfish called a siphonophore. It was so long. It had to be over 10 meters long, and it was pumping out so much light that I could see everything. It was just amazing and, you know, shocking and incredible and magical. And there've been a lot of examples of that, just bioluminescence that just have blown my mind, and it still blows my mind.
Miller: After experiencing something like that, it seems like almost out of this world, but then to know that we share a planet with these incredible creatures…. Do you ever feel like when you get to the surface, is it almost like a letdown to only have access to this world for short periods of time?
Widder: You know that feeling of not being able to stay long enough to see what I wanted to see was the inspiration for developing the Eye in the Sea. And actually that eventually turned into the world's first deep-sea webcam, which was in Monterey Canyon for eight months. So I could have up in the corner of my screen all the time, a view of what was going on in the deep sea, which was absolutely thrilling. But yeah, I don't think we have nearly the access that we need and it's really critical that we do because we live on an ocean planet. We hear that all the time, but I don't think people really grasp the extent of it, because yes, you look at it from space, and 71 percent of the surface of the area of the Earth is covered by water. That's just surface area.
If you think in terms of the living space on the planet, what's called the biosphere, the terrestrial living space extends into the tallest trees and several feet below the surface, but it's an absurdly thin layer compared to the volume of the ocean, which is on average two point three miles deep. So the living space on our planet, 99.5 percent of it is ocean. And you know, we just live on these little dry islands we call continents and have a very, very poor idea of how the machinery of life works. We have to, for our own sake, realize that the most precious resource on this planet is not oil or ore; it’s life. And we're destroying it at our own potential expense. And we need to start learning more about how the planet works.
We're changing it before we understand it. And this is happening in ecosystems all over the world. Very often science doesn't get funding to study any kind of ecosystem until it collapses. At which point the public is up in arms saying, ‘Fix it, put it back the way it was.’ And how can we ever do that if we never dedicated the funding to figuring out how it works when it’s healthy?
Miller: I know there's so many depressing statistics every day about plastic in our oceans, about climate change, warming waters…. But you were talking about the importance of optimism. How do you remain optimistic?
Widder: I will confess that it is sometimes a challenge to remain optimistic, but I think it's essential that we do so. One of the reasons I love the movie “The Martian” is because of the gestalt of being an explorer means having to deal with problems, life threatening problems, over and over again. And you just don't give up, you just keep working the problem and trying to find the solution. And if you find enough solutions, you survive.
And that's the situation we're in. It's always been the situation that humans have been in. We are by nature explorers, that's who we are, and I think we need to tap into that. The doom and gloom is just turning people off. We need to focus on our strengths rather than our weaknesses. And our strength has always been exploration: figuring out how the world works; where we can find shelter; what food was safe to eat; what animals were dangerous; and then sharing that with each other. That's been key to our survival, always. We have to continue that tradition, but in a much bigger way.