The beautiful, gallery-worthy shadowgraph of a physonect siphonophore, Forskalia sp., taken by ISIIS off the coast of Southern California in October 2010. Bob Cowen / University of Miami & Oregon State University. Click image for permission and source.

If you're like me, you've pondered from time to time the goings-on of life in the deep. What's happening down there this very moment? What do the creatures look like when they're just hanging out? But most of us will never be able to take a trip in a submersible. Now, though fuzzy and in silhouette, a few scientists are inviting us to peer through a porthole into the deep -- and to help them out, in the process. This may be the only chance most of us ever get to have a candid look.

Plankton are drifters -- anything that moves through the ocean on currents instead of its own power. Once active swimming begins (if ever), it's no longer plankton. But that doesn't mean all plankton are small. Colonial organisms called siphonophores, as you can see in the image above, can reach enormous lengths.

Plankton is at the base of the food chain for most ocean life, and is intimately tied up in moving carbon around, a process vital to understanding climate change. Studying where and when plankton occur and at what depths can answer questions about what kinds of plankton are found where, what they're doing, how plankton populations affect fish and seafood populations, and even how plankton affect or reflect the function and health of the oceans.

For hundreds of years, plankton was collected in long, conical fine-mesh nets, but because plankton tend to be squishy, that ended up Cuisinarting a lot of them. It's also hard to get information about depth, direction, and associated organisms when all the plankton are jumbled together. Photographing plankton in place gets around those problems, but does create the problem of someone having to sort through the millions of images. That's where you come in.

The Plankton Portal project is a collaboration between the Citizen Science site Zooniverse (which you should check for any other citizen scientist projects that might be of interest to you! There are projects in space, archaeology, and more) Oregon State, the University of Miami, and a few other partners, with funding from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation (i.e., You, the Taxpayer).

The data was collected an underwater vehicle towed behind a ship at 5 knots over just three days in October 2010 in the Southern California Bight, the curved part of the coast from Point Conception to San Diego, in an area where two water masses met. The vehicle, which contained a camera that captured shadows of all the drifting plankton that passed between its light and its camera, zig-zagged between the surface and 200 meters (650 feet).

In those three days, they collected millions of images, and now they need help searching through them for life. As it turns out, pattern recognition is something that humans still do far better than computers. They need your finely honed human brain to instantly pick out creatures they're interested in.

Once you pick one out, your job is to tag its length and width, direction of movement, and sort it into one of the 23 categories. There's a handy, well-illustrated field guide on the site that you can study to help you learn what to look for, but there's also a simplified version that appears every time you're choosing a category for a particular image. As I discovered when trying it out, there is a learning curve, but it curves pretty fast. Fortunately, learning is another thing our brains are skilled at.

There's something both relaxing and stimulating about the process -- a bit like viewing art. The black-and-white photos of the deep remind us of the world invisibly swirling away down there, which has been doing so for millennia, regardless of ice ages or asteroids or the doings of hominids, and which will probably keep doing so so long as the oceans don't boil away. And the shadowgraphs give the experience the feel of perusing the special exhibit: "Creatures of the Deep: Candid Photos of Earth's Largest Habitat".

Some of them, even in my small sample, contained some startling images.

This one, for instance.


I think that's a rather mechanical-looking jellyfish facing us head-on in the center, with a beautiful and bizarre organism called a Venus's Girdle (Family Cestida) at upper right (see better pictures in the field guide).

Or take this one. I marked the jellyfish on the right. But that thing on the left? No idea. It doesn't seem to fit into one of the 23 categories, although that could just be inexperience on my part.


The site's owners say not to worry too much about making mistakes -- many users will mark and categorize individual photos, so any errors should hopefully come out in the wash. If I wasn't sure about how to categorize something, I erred on the side of caution and left it unmarked.

Their website is easy to navigate and the short tutorial lasts only a few minutes. You don't have to sign up for an account, which is great if you want to, er, test the waters. If anything, I felt the tutorial may have been a bit *too* spartan. I often wondered if an organism belonged in one of their categories, struggled with which category it belonged too, and had a hard time figuring out just which end was the front.

Early on, training slides are helpfully mixed in with regular slides, and show what the correct measurements and categories should have been (and no judgment if you get one wrong!). If you stumble on anything truly remarkable or puzzling, you can easily bring it to the attention of other users and the site's administrators on discussion boards created for this purpose. If you sign up for an account, you can review your images and even mark favorites.

The field guide is helpful to learning what to look for, but not so helpful at educating me about the classes of organisms I'm sorting. I sorely wished there were more information -- even just a few descriptive sentences -- about what "larvacean houses" or "thalassos" or "rocket-ship triangles" were.

Nearly anyone can do this. This is the kind of project that you can drop in on, categorize a few slides to take a break from some other task, and check out. It's fun. Like Chatroulette, you never quite know what you're going to get.

But to be honest, what you often get is very little or nothing. The shadowgraphs are often confusing, ambiguous, or empty. Images of spectacular sea creatures are the exception. But this is real life. And as we all know, real life is often confusing, ambiguous, or empty. But it's real. And that's what makes it exciting.

Short of Sir Richard Branson launching Virgin Oceanic (paging Sir Richard!) and, setting aside carefully-scripted nature documentaries, for now, the Plankton Portal seems about as close to directly observing the deep as most of us can come. What I love most about this project is the chance for you to be a real explorer -- to see the unknown or make a spectacular find, as these lucky volunteers did. This project puts you in the space suit, or at the helm of the 100-foot ship with the Royal Letters Patent. As Plankton Portal blogger Adam Greer writes:

I have spent the last 5 years of my graduate school career at the University of Miami examining hundreds of thousands of plankton images, and every time I flip through the images, I always have the feeling that I could see something that no human has ever seen before. I try to instill this sense of wonder and hope for discovery in all people that work with the images, because when you see something interesting, like an elaborate siphonophore or a dense patch of copepods, you are likely the first person to see that species in its natural environment.

I couldn't have said it better.