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Edith Widder, Part 1: Challenge and Innovation

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Exploring an ecosystem as challenging and dangerous as the deep sea takes more than determination and bravery — it requires innovation as well.

“The greatest challenge that deep sea biology faces is chronic under-funding,” Dr. Edith “Edie” Widder told the Oceanscape Network during a phone interview in late 2015. “This has never been a well-funded branch of science. We’ve never put anywhere near the kind of thought and finances into it that we’ve put into exploring space. As a result, it’s a very unexplored environment.”

Edie is the CEO and Senior Scientist for the Ocean Research and Conservation Association based in Fort Pierce, Florida. Her interest in the deep sea is multi-fold. Not only is she actively researching these near lightless depths, but ORCA helps educate the public about the role the oceans play in keeping the planet healthy and provides a variety of conservation programs.

Edie Sees The Light

Edie acknowledges that she’s always been fascinated by the oceans, but her interest in the deep sea can be traced to a particular event. Due to the poor funding for deep-sea exploration, scientists were looking for existing technologies they could use in their work. In 1984, Edie was given the chance to dive down to 2,000 feet (609 m) using a WASP atmospheric diving suit. The WASP suits were not intended for deep-sea exploration, but were actually developed for repairing off-shore oil rigs. Still, the opportunity to test the WASP and see if it would work for scientific purposes was too tempting to pass up. When Edie reached the dark depths and turned out the suit’s lights, she astounded by what she encountered.

“I saw how much bioluminescence was in the ocean and I just got completely hooked,” she remembers. “The deep sea was filled with light. I needed to understand why this was occurring. It was obviously taking a great amount of energy for these animals to produce this light, so it had to be important.”

Although the WASP gave Edie her first taste of diving the deep sea, the suits were expense to operate and provided the user with limited time underwater. To investigate further and better, Edie had to cooperate with other scientists and engineers to develop newer, cheaper and more versatile technology. Over the following years, Edie has helped to design numerous technologies, but her most famous are the various camera platforms used to capture deep sea life. The first of these was called Eye-in-the-Sea, an autonomous, battery-powered device, which used an elaborate illumination system to lure in animals and then record them with a highly sensitive camera. In conjunction, Edie also developed what she calls an “electronic jellyfish” (or e-jelly) which could be deployed from the EITS. The e-jelly is an optical lure that can be programmed with five different light patterns used by deep sea animals. Although all the patterns yielded results, one known as a “burglar alarm display” proved to be particularly valuable.

“When deep sea animals are being attacked by predators, they set off all their bioluminescence in the hopes of attracting in a larger predator who will then attack what’s attacking them,” Edie explained. “That’s why we call it a ‘burglar alarm.’ It’s like a deep sea cry for help.”

During its first expedition, the combination of the EITS and the e-jelly recorded a species of large squid previously unknown to science. (Click here to download and view video of this squid.)

Although the combination of the EITS and e-jelly was very successful, Edie wanted to find a more inexpensive way to deploy her camera — one that didn’t depend on using a submersible or a remote operated vehicle.

“We needed a platform that we could lower over the side of a ship and would just drift silently on the currents,” Edie recalled. Thus, the Medusa Lander was born.

Like the EITS, the Medusa Lander relied on the e-jelly to lure in giant wildlife.

Part 2: Edie and the Giant Squid

Related Features: Creep into the Deep 2015

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About The S.T.E.A.M. Powered Program

This multi-part series features five women who are at the tops of their fields in Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math. Over the 2015-16 school year, one week will be dedicated to each person, highlighting their education, careers and innovative contributions to their various disciplines — including the discovery of new species, the exploration of hostile ecosystems and the conservation of marine species.