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May 11th, 2009

Painting with (really tiny, living) light

Posted by Chris Linder

On April 3rd, photographer Chris Linder and science writer Helen Fields joined a team of 38 scientists for a 40-day expedition to study the impact of climate change on the Bering Sea ecosystem. While crisscrossing the Bering Sea with the science team, Chris and Helen have posted photo essays, sounds, and videos to the Polar Discovery website every day, as part of the Live from the Poles project. This week Chris describes his process for recording the neon blue trails created by bioluminescent copepods. Check out Chris’s past posts for tips on writing grants for science-based photo expeditions and preparing for a sub-zero photo shoot.
Photo by Chris Linder, WHOI

Bioluminescent copepods called Metridia. Photo by Chris Linder, WHOI

Celia Gelfman, a technician on the research team, threw down the gauntlet one day while I was photographing in the lab: Capture the beauty of bioluminescence. I followed Celia to the walk-in refrigerator where the tiny crustaceans called zooplankton are stored. Celia presented me with a big jug of water. I could see a few translucent critters about the size of a pencil tip swimming around. Then Celia poured some of the water over a sieve, and wow! For a few seconds after the pour, neon-blue Metridia lit up and raced around the mesh. The challenge was on to find a way to photograph these glowing animals.

The goal of this scientific expedition to the Bering Sea is to understand how a warming climate is affecting the food web. Research teams on the ship are studying phytoplankton (microscopic marine plants), copepods like Metridia, and krill (larger zooplankton that resemble shrimp). These “charismatic microfauna” are found throughout the world’s oceans, and they are food for other zooplankton, fish, birds, and even whales. Among the many zooplankton species that scientists have collected on this expedition, one has a very special trait. Metridia, when disturbed, give off a neon blue light like an underwater firefly. This is called bioluminescence.

I enlisted writer Helen Fields to hold the sieve over the sink and we started experimenting. First, we turned off the overhead lights and blocked the fluorescent light leaking out from under a counter. In order to record only the light from the copepods, I needed the room to be dark. Next I set up my Nikon D700 and a 105mm macro lens on a tripod and aimed it at the surface of the sieve (using a flashlight to manually focus on the sieve). I was assuming that, just like lightning, the neon trails of moving Metridia would burn bright lines into a dark background during a long time exposure. The first exposure confirmed that they would indeed show up. It took a few more tries to find the perfect shutter speed (four seconds) and the best way to hold the sieve (duct tape, of course!) Lastly, the Metridia had to make an interesting composition. It took about an hour to make this image.

Tonight (May 11th), we arrive in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, where this journey began nearly six weeks ago. I’d like to extend a big thank you to our sponsors, the National Science Foundation and the Richard King Mellon Foundation, for supporting the most important and fulfilling work I have ever done. I would also like to thank the RESOLVE blog for helping me get the word out about climate change science in the Bering Sea. What’s next? This July I’ll be trading sea ice for mosquitoes when I travel to eastern Siberia to document researchers studying arctic rivers and lakes. Visit the Polaris Project to follow our adventures.


One Comment

  1. January 2nd, 2010 at 3:51 am

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