Plankton Pioneers

A substantial part of being a scientist, especially when you are relatively new, is learning about the research that has been done over the years. The purpose of this is to critically examine the published scientific work and identify the knowledge gaps that still remain. On this blog, we talk a lot about plankton images and all of the interesting data that you are helping us analyze. But what got us started down this path? How did scientists realize that there was a completely different world other plankton samplers (nets) were missing?

With improvements in SCUBA diving gear and underwater photography, the 1970s were an exciting time to be a marine biologist. A handful of young scientists, who would later become some of the leading experts in their field, pioneered the use of “blue water diving.” This involves divers going out to the open ocean, descending to a particular depth, and observing the life around them. Blue water diving is little bit more difficult than your typical dive on a coral reef because there is no reference point for your eye to detect if you are ascending or descending in the water. They had to be very good at controlling their buoyancy!

Dr. Alice Alldrege, now a professor at UC Santa Barbara, counts plankton within a fixed volume to estimate their concentrations

Alice Alldredge, a research professor at UC Santa Barbara, counts plankton within a fixed volume to estimate their concentrations

The amazing things the scientists witnessed, and that many of you get to see in the ISIIS images, were documented in an article in National Geographic in 1974, written by Dr. William Hamner. The article effectively captures the sense of wonder and amazement that they experienced observing these fragile animals up close. They departed from Bimini, Bahamas and would dive on the side of the island protected from the strong Gulf Stream current. Each researcher focused on a different plankton group, capturing a variety of specimens and estimating their abundance. During their research, they were the first people to image larvaceans swimming freely in the ocean, as well as discovering abundant pteropods once thought to be very rare. They even occasionally saw curious sharks passing by!


Salp reproducing a new chain asexually – photo credit LP Madin

Ctenophore ocyropsis maculata with its lobes open.. The scientists discovered that this species uses its lobes primarily for locomotion

Ctenophore Ocyropsis maculata with its lobes open. The scientists discovered that this species uses its lobes primarily for locomotion.

The data gathered by these “Plankton Pioneers” was so valuable that later, when computer technology advanced, their work provided justification for developing imaging systems, such as the Video Plankton Recorder (Davis et al. 1992) and ISIIS, that could collect data at a much faster rate than divers. No doubt that as technology advances even more, there will be plenty of discoveries made about the secret lives of plankton. So if you ever have a chance to be in the ocean, take a minute to ignore the pretty corals and fish to look just a few inches in front of your mask. You just might see a whole world most overlooked for so long.

All photos are from National Geographic. Head to your local library and read the entire article! It is definitely worth the trip!


Davis CS, Gallager SM, Solow AR (1992) Microaggregations of oceanic plankton observed by towed video microscopy. Science 257: 230-232

Hamner, WM (Oct. 1974) Ghosts of the Gulf Stream: Blue-water plankton. National Geographic Magazine 146: 530-545

5 thoughts on “Plankton Pioneers

  1. interesting post, i like the photos! i’d love to read the whole article. hopefully it will be available even in our library..

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