Light In The Darkness
Marine biologist Edith Widder believes that exploring the ocean’s wonders will help us understand how to save them.
By Devon Frye published November 2, 2021 - last reviewed on November 2, 2021
The majority of the ocean’s water is out of reach of the sun’s rays. Yet the darkness of the deep sea is far from absolute. Many of the creatures that populate its depths have evolved a clever way of coping: They make their own light, illuminating their surroundings with a kind of underwater fireworks display.
This phenomenon, known as bioluminescence, has captivated oceanographer and deep-sea explorer Edith Widder since she first witnessed it decades ago. She’s spent her career chasing bioluminescence and searching for answers to its core questions: How does it work? and Why do they do it?
In her memoir, Below the Edge of Darkness, Widder shares tales of life-or-death moments hundreds of feet below the surface—as well as harrowing personal challenges she faced on land—and groundbreaking discoveries that shine a light on Earth’s final frontier. Along the way, she makes the case that bringing out the explorer in all of us is the best way to keep the ocean, and the vibrant menagerie beneath its surface, thriving in the years to come.
Your dream of becoming a marine biologist almost ended at age 18 when surgery for a broken back led to frightening complications—including temporary blindness. What was that experience like for you?
It was brutal—I had to go through surgery every other day for a couple of months. And when I realized just how blind I was, I panicked. I could see only flashes of light and swirling darkness. I suddenly felt insecure; I realized my life could be derailed at any time.
It was a very slow process to get my vision back. But the experience helped me start to understand what living in the deep sea might be like. I also became intrigued by light itself—particularly, how the nervous system is able to turn it into information and how it can be used as a kind of language. Light is communication at a distance.
What else did you take away from your medical ordeal?
While I was in the hospital, I learned to control my feelings of panic by simply focusing on something else. The brain can’t think about two things at once; being able to redirect it when it tries to go off half-cocked is a really valuable tool.
Panic is rarely useful, but you really can’t panic when you’re at the bottom of the ocean. Once, in the Wasp [a single-person deep-sea diving suit], I experienced a full-blown claustrophobia attack—the sweats, all of it. Being able to refocus was critical; I concentrated my thoughts on a jellyfish that was in front of me to get through the panic. And it worked—until the controller up at the surface told me I had just broken the world depth record in the Wasp. That was a piece of information I wish he’d saved for later.
You’ve had plenty of close calls—including a leak in a single-person sub, the Deep Rover, when you were 350 feet down. What keeps you diving, despite the danger?
It’s always been in humans’ DNA to be explorers. It’s how we figured out which plants were safe to eat and which animals could be hunted. But it goes beyond that. Exploring, for me, is the biggest thrill you can have. And to discover something that no one has ever seen before? Once I got a taste for that, there was no going back.
What discovery stands out most in your mind?
There was one expedition in 2004, where I got to test the Eye-in-the-Sea [a deep-sea camera she’d designed] for the first time. For once, I could see without being seen. A few hours into its deployment, we recorded a squid over 6 feet long that was completely new to science—it couldn’t even be placed in any known scientific family. It was the highest high I’ve ever had in my life—I screamed so loud it could be heard all over the ship.
What are some common misconceptions about deep-sea exploration?
A lot of kids think: The ocean has all been explored—there’s nothing new I can do. And that’s just so wrong. We’ve visited only about .05 percent of the bottom of the ocean—and that’s just the bottom! We’re talking about 300 million cubic miles of volume, and we’ve explored just a teensy fraction of that.
Over your decades of exploring, you’ve seen first-hand the damage that humans are doing to the ocean. Can promoting exploration help us change course?
Exploration has always been the key to human survival, and it’s the key to human survival now. It’s what drives scientific innovation, and understanding science is how people will know what kind of difference we could make and what kind of progress has already been made.
In some ways, it feels as if we’ve lost our sense of exploration, except for a few billionaires who want to go to outer space. But it’s in all of us—we just need to tap into it. And if we do, it could be a very powerful way to harness Earth’s life-support systems and better understand how they work.