Convocation speaker reveals the mysteries of the deep sea

Michael Schreiber

Edith Widder, a MacArthur Genius Fellow as well as a conservation biologist and deep-sea explorer, delivered a convocation titled “Eye in the Sea: What Does Deep Sea Exploration Tell Us about Marine Conservation?” Feb. 3 in the Lawrence Memorial Chapel. The convocation was Lawrence’s third this academic year.
Widder’s lecture was divided into two sections.
In the first, Widder described some of her fascinating discoveries as a deep-sea explorer. She focused on her experiences with the phenomenon of bioluminescence, the light created by many of the organisms that inhabit the worlds’ oceans.
In the second, Widder explained her work as co-founder of the Ocean Research and Conservation Association, a position in which she works to improve the monitoring of marine ecosystems.
Widder opened her talk by introducing the topic of marine ecosystems as one that is “fascinating, mysterious and, for those of us who inhabit the Earth, extremely important.” Widder stressed that the oceans occupy 99 percent of the world’s living space, known as the biosphere.
Having completed over 250 deep-sea dives, Widder described the undersea ecosystem as being a vibrant world bright with the “silent fireworks display” of bioluminescence. As a young scientist, Widder was fascinated to discover how alive the “absolutely breathtaking” deep sea was, as most scientists had previously described a drab ocean world absent of light.
After she had experienced the undersea world as it really is, she devoted her scientific career to developing new ways to visualize and study the bioluminescent denizens of the oceans. As Provost and Dean of the Faculty David Burrows pointed out in his introduction to Widder’s lecture, Widder “may be the first convocation speaker to hold a U.S. patent.” Indeed, Widder has developed a number of camera and visualization technologies that allow her to “learn something new” every time she uses them.
Widder said that bioluminescence is much more common in the ocean than on land, where it is frequently observed in fireflies, adding that if a person drags a net through water anywhere in the world, 80-90 percent of the animals caught make light.
Widder’s descriptions of her work with bioluminescent creatures were accompanied by a series of films that depicted the eerie blue lightshows these organisms produce.
As she displayed these videos, Widder argued that deep sea exploration is transitioning to a phase of permanent observatory presence. With constant observation in the ocean, Widder feels she can discover the sources of ecosystem pollution and degradation and protect the “world’s support system.”
The data Widder collects with her constant underwater observatories, called Kilroys, are being packaged for easy consumption by policymakers who can protect the marine ecosystem from “completely unsustainable” practices such as bottom trawling – the damaging practice of raking the ocean floor to capture fish.
As Widder stated, bottom trawling “destroys habitats that take hundreds of years to regrow.”
Kilroy, which reports its observations via cellular network signals in real time, is also able to determine the direction and source of pollution flows, tracking them back to agricultural waste lagoons and factory polluters.
Widder, who remains “gravely concerned over conservation,” believes liberal arts students are “well-suited to address the world’s problems” with their multidisciplinary approach.
Widder encouraged Lawrence students to follow ORCA’s efforts at her organization’s Web site:
ORCA’s Eye-in-the-Sea, a live-streaming video taken from a camera set in the ocean floor, is set to monitor deep-sea organisms. The video stream is viewable at