A Day of Deep-Sea Cameras and Creatures in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life

by AMNH on


Person using a screen to understand a display on bioluminescence.
David Gruber, a speaker at this Sunday’s Milstein Science Series, helped photograph the Bloody Ball Wall in Creatures of Light. © AMNH/D. Finnin

David Gruber is an assistant professor at The City University of New York (CUNY) and a Museum research associate who consulted on the exhibition Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence. We recently asked about his deep-sea photography and his work at the Museum.

What was it like consulting on Creatures of Light?

One of the best parts was meeting with the designers who made the models of organisms. We would make tiny tweaks until they got more and more realistic, and we created some of the most detailed models of several organisms. As the models were being designed, many anatomy questions came up that weren’t anywhere in the scientific literature, so we often went back to the animals themselves to answer questions the designers brought up.

Part of your work for the exhibition involved photographing a coral wall. Were some of these animals harder to photograph than others?

Unlike corals that sit in place, the fish are harder because they move around. One of the animals people will see is a glowing eel that jumped into one of our photographs. We didn’t even know it was there until we got back to lab and reviewed the film.

Can you tell us about the deep-sea camera you’re building?

When you’re photographing bioluminescence, you can’t shine strobes or lights as you would on a movie set. You must rely on the light coming off of the animals. When you’ve been in the dark a long time, your eyes adjust pretty well, and you forget just how sensitive they are, to the point where you take a photo with a camera and nothing shows up. So you have to move to more and more sensitive cameras, which are really meant for scientists rather than filmmakers and so many are in black and white, mainly set on top of microscopes. We are taking this new technology off the microscope and into the water.

You’ve also written a book called Aglow in the Dark: The Revolutionary Science of Biofluorescence. What inspired you to write it?

What we know about these creatures comes back to what science has discovered. There are still so many bioluminescent and biofluorescent organisms waiting to be found and filmed. The people who get really obsessed with bioluminescence interest me because there aren’t that many of them; it involves a certain breed of scientist that likes traveling, going into water at night, or diving down deep in submersibles and designing equipment. I got interested in the history of all the people that had studied these things before me.