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Diving in the Dark with David Gruber

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From the Field posts

John Sparks and David Gruber dive off Little Cayman Island.
© Neil van Niekerk

Underwater photography is always a challenge, but try doing it at night. That’s how David Gruber, a Museum research associate and consultant for the exhibition Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence, will be spending the next few weeks in the Solomon Islands as he searches for glowing organisms to photograph. Gruber is writing about his experiences for The New York Times’s “Scientist at Work: Notes From the Field” blog along with fellow Museum research associate Vincent Pieribone.

“The scientific goals of this trip are manifold,” Gruber writes in his first post, “but above all we are after elusive near-infrared fluorescent and bioluminescent molecules to aid in biomedical research.” Both bioluminescent animals—creatures that generate light—and biofluorescent organisms—which absorb light and re-emit it at other wavelengths—have wide applications in medicine by allowing certain cells, such as those within cancerous tumors, to be visually tagged and tracked.

Gruber is working with a group of scientists and photographers that includes Pieribone as well as John Sparks, curator of Creatures of Light, and Robert Schelly, a Museum ichthyologist, on an expedition funded by a National Geographic Society/Waitt Institute grant. One of their first challenges is to scope out a coral reef in preparation for a nighttime dive, when they will have the greatest chance of capturing the shots needed for their research. The team must use an ensemble of high-tech equipment, much of which had to be designed specifically for this purpose.

Gruber and Sparks aren’t new to nocturnal dives. The duo took on a similar project photographing a panoramic of Bloody Bay Wall off Little Cayman Island for Creatures of Light at nightan experience Gruber wrote about for the Museum’s Rotunda magazine and which revealed a rich tapestry of glowing organisms within the coral wall.

“What we know about these creatures comes back to what science has discovered,” wrote Gruber. “There are still so many bioluminescent and biofluorescent organisms waiting to be found and filmed.”