Widder in the Johnson Sea Link submersible, July 2009
|Born||Edith Anne Widder
June 11, 1951
Arlington, Massachusetts, United States
|Other names||Edith “Edie” Anne Widder Smith|
|Fields||Oceanography and marine biology|
|Education||Tufts University (B.S. 1973)
University of California, Santa Barbara (M.S. 1977, Ph.D. 1982)
|Known for||Bioluminescence research|
|Notable awards||MacArthur Fellow (2006)|
We need a NASA-like organization for ocean exploration, because we need to be exploring and protecting our life support systems here on Earth.
For my Ph.D. thesis, I was measuring the electrical activity that triggers light emission from a bioluminescent dinoflagellate. As I was nearing the completion of my degree, my major professor wrote a grant for an instrument for measuring the color of very dim light flashes from bioluminescent animals.
The primary way that we know about what lives in the ocean is we go out and drag nets behind ships. And I defy you to name any other branch of science that still depends on hundreds-of-year-old technology. The other primary way is we go down with submersibles and remote- operated vehicles. I've made hundreds of dives in submersibles.
When caught in the clutches of a predator, the jelly produces a light display that is a pinwheel of light that is basically a call for help. It serves to attract the attention of a larger predator that may attack their attacker, thereby affording them an opportunity for escape.
I have made hundreds of dives in submersibles, with each dive holding the promise of seeing an organism or a behavior that no one has ever seen before. But I have always wondered about the animals and behaviors that we're not seeing because our bright lights and loud thrusters scare them away.
Since my first dive in a deep-diving submersible, when I went down and turned out the lights and saw the fireworks displays, I've been a bioluminescence junky. But I would come back from those dives and try to share the experience with words, and they were totally inadequate to the task. I needed some way to share the experience directly.
If we are to be good stewards of the ocean, we need to understand what lives there and how the animals interact with each other and with their environment, which means we need to be constantly seeking new and improved methods for exploration and observation.
Now we have new tools for exploring the deep and have to pull together a deep exploration program that takes advantage of them.
I think I have the best job in the world. Seventy-one percent of the planet is covered by water, we've explored less than five percent of the ocean, and there are so many fabulous discoveries that have yet to be made.
Exploration is the engine that drives innovation. Innovation drives economic growth.
If I go out in the open ocean environment, virtually anywhere in the world, and I drag a net from 3,000 feet to the surface, most of the animals – in fact, in many places, 80 to 90 percent of the animals that I bring up in that net – make light. This makes for some pretty spectacular light shows.
I had wanted to place the Eye-in-the-Sea at an oasis on the bottom of the ocean, in some site rich with life that was likely to be patrolled by large predators. The first time I got to test the camera at such a place was in 2004, in the north end of the Gulf of Mexico, at an amazing location called the brine pool.
Squid don't eat jellyfish, but they eat the things that eat the jellyfish. Jellyfishes put on a lightshow to attract a larger predator. It's caught in the clutches of something like a fish and has no hope for escape unless its lightshow attracts something bigger that will attack their attacker.
It is clear that if we are going to understand ocean ecosystems, we need to understand the part that bioluminescence plays in those ecosystems.
I developed an optical lure that imitates certain types of bioluminescent displays that I think might be attractive to large predators. The other way to do it is just use dead bait, but I think dead bait attracts scavengers, and we wanted to attract active predators.
We've only explored about five percent of our ocean. There are great discoveries yet to be made down there, fantastic creatures representing millions of years of evolution and possibly bioactive compounds that could benefit us in ways that we can't even yet imagine.
Exploration is the engine that drives innovation. Innovation drives economic growth. So let's all go exploring.
There's a lionfish cookbook put out by the Reef Environmental Educational Foundation, and it tells you how to catch them, how to clean them.
In 2008, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded for work done on a molecule called green fluorescent protein that was isolated from the bioluminescent chemistry of a jellyfish, and it's been equated to the invention of the microscope in terms of the impact that it has had on cell biology and genetic engineering.
It's a little-appreciated fact that most of the animals in our ocean make light. I've spent most of my career studying this phenomenon called bioluminescence. I study it because I think understanding it is critical to understanding life in the ocean where most bioluminescence occurs.
The giant squid has the biggest eyes of any animal on the planet. It's a visual predator.
Giant squid aren't rare. Based on the number of beaks that have been found in the stomachs of sperm whales, it's thought that there are actually millions of them in the ocean, and yet, we haven't seen them.
During my first open ocean dive, I went down to 800 feet and turned out the lights. I knew I would see bioluminescence, but I was totally unprepared for how much. It was incredible! There were explosions of light everywhere, like being in the middle of a silent fireworks display.
Finding animals that make light in the ocean is easy. Just drag a net through the water anywhere in the upper 3000 feet, and as many as 80-90% of the animals you catch can make light. The biomimetic lure that I developed imitates one of these – a common deep sea jellyfish called Atolla.
There's a lot of animals in the open ocean – most of them that make light. And we have a pretty good idea, for most of them, why. They use it for finding food, for attracting mates, for defending against predators. But when you get down to the bottom of the ocean, that's where things get really strange.
I just was mesmerized by all of this life everywhere I looked. And so I wanted to be a marine biologist.
Squid experts have been debating for some time about whether the giant squid is a passive predator that just floats around in the water and waits to bump into something. I was never one to imagine it to be passive.
In 2010, there was a TED event called Mission Blue held aboard the Lindblad Explorer in the Galapagos as part of the fulfillment of Sylvia Earle's TED wish. I spoke about a new way of exploring the ocean, one that focuses on attracting animals instead of scaring them away.
This is part of what's driving me, is this feeling like there's so much yet to be discovered in the oceans, and we're destroying it before we even know what's in it.
We've only explored about 5% of our ocean. There are great discoveries yet to be made down there – fantastic creatures representing millions of years of evolution and possibly bioactive compounds that could benefit us in ways we can't even imagine.
The one thing I've learned exploring the deep is that you just can't even begin to imagine some of the bizarre creatures that are down there.
That's a real problem when people bring exotics into their homes. Sometimes it's by accident, but sometimes it's on purpose.
I developed my camera system, called the Medusa, jointly with a colleague down in Australia as a method of exploring the ocean unobtrusively. The critical thing was that we didn't use white light, which I believe has been scaring the animals away.
I never, ever would have imagined the kind of career I've had. It just wouldn't have occurred to me that anything like this could have been possible. I didn't have any such aspirations. And I still can't believe my good fortune.
Exploring is an innate part of being human. We're all explorers when we're born. Unfortunately, it seems to get drummed out of many of us as we get older, but it's there, I think, in all of us. And for me that moment of discovery is just so thrilling, on any level, that I think anybody that's experienced it is pretty quickly addicted to it.
One of the things that's frustrated me as a deep-sea explorer is how many animals there probably are in the ocean that we know nothing about because of the way we explore the ocean.