May 11, 2010 | 1
Editor’s Note: William Gilly, a professor of cell and developmental biology and marine and organismal biology at Stanford University, is traveling with a group of students on board the Don José in the Sea of Cortez. They will monitor and track Humboldt squid and sperm whales in their watery habitats. This is the group’s second blog post.
SEA OF CORTEZ—Our search for the jumbo squid continues. Crisscrossing the Gulf over the last 24 hours has shown us that even if the hefty adult squid remain hidden, the sea has more than enough unexpected life to occupy our attention.
On the night of May 6, when the Don José slowed to a float on the black waters, those of us who were still awake were awestruck by what we saw. Shining lights into the sea in hopes of glimpsing midnight squid, we saw instead galaxies swirling beneath us. Countless flashing stars, all dancing as far as the light could shine!
Our awe gave way to scientific curiosity. They were tiny fish called myctophids, or lantern fish—the most abundant vertebrates on earth and the main food of the jumbo squid. These silvery fish, only two inches long, exist in unimaginable numbers in the mesopelagic euphotic zone, where light cannot penetrate, and they only rarely come to the surface on dark nights. They were everywhere; we wondered what had brought them up in such numbers—and why only small squid were around to feast on them.
As we studied a few, looking at their tiny, dim photophores and fragile scales, we could not help but think of John Steinbeck’s words from The Log from the Sea of Cortez:
"…all things are one thing and that one thing is all things—plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again."
Galaxies of myctophids spinning beneath us, the fish turning in our palms, and the stars ever above—our scientific curiosity gave way again to awe. Caught between the immensity of the ocean and the infinity of the sky, how could we not feel a part of it all?
Underwater image of myctophid fish and luminescent photopores of others courtesy of Sergio Benitez; image of Sergio looking into the underwater firmament courtesy of Lauren Bell