Research Expedition Captures Stunning Images of Plankton

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

I'm Aaron Schachter. This is The World.

There's no way around it—we report on an awful lot of bad news here on The World.

But every now and then something just jaw-droppingly fabulous comes across our desks–the kind of thing that makes you excited about the world again.

We just heard from Hamish Low, who was ecstatic about an unusual ancient black oak tree. Well, it happened again this morning, also, in our editorial meeting here at The World, to our environment editor Peter Thomson.

He was trawling the BBC's website and he came across a slideshow of incredibly vivid, high-resolution images of marine zooplankton.

We've got a link to it on The World dot org, and when you see these pictures you also might just stop what you're doing and absorb their astonishing beauty.

Peter's here in the studio now… They're colourful, they're interesting, but what grabbed you about these pictures?

THOMSON: Well you just said it, Aaron, I mean it's the incredible beauty of these really tiny organisms. And they're incredibly complex, and you can see that in these photographs. We're talking about things that in some cases are a millimeter long and smaller, down to almost nanometers. And when you see them in these amazing high-res pictures, they look every bit as complex as the biggest animals on earth. You can see their organs, you can see their eyes, their jointed bodies and legs. Many of them also have these really vivid colors, these blues and greens and pinks and this kind of eerie translucent shimmer to them. They're really just totally amazing.

SCHACHTER: And where did these images come from?

THOMSON: Well, let me back up for a minute, if I may. I was in New York last winter and I walking around lower Manhattan with my daughter, and I saw this very strange looking sailboat tied up at a dock in Battery Park City. It's hull was all metal and it was rounded at the top instead of angular, and it had almost no deck space—it was almost entirely enclosed. And instead of a delicate little name inscribed on the stern like most sailboats have it had the name TARA etched in a big orange stripe on the bow. It was clearly a ship meant for some kind of marine research in very unforgiving conditions, and I found a small sign on the dock that said indeed that's what it was, that it had been conducting scientific and educational voyages around the world.

It sounded very cool and I took a picture and made a mental note of it, and then I of course forgot about it as I went off to try to find my daughter a hot chocolate, because it was freezing out.

SCHACHTER: Of course!

THOMSON: Well, it turns out that this is where those images came from, the ones I found this morning. Tara is a 120-foot French sailing ship that's been traveling the world's oceans for years chronicling various facets of the marine environment and how that's changing. And it's latest mission was a 2-1/2 year, 70-thousand mile journey to nearly every part of the global ocean researching plankton. And part of that project was to photograph what they found in this incredible detail.

SCHACHTER: Yeah, OK, now you're an environment guy, you're a science guy… Plankton? I mean come on, it's plankton! What's the big deal?

THOMSON: Well, they're cool, as someone who's interested in science and the environment, but they're more than that. They're these really tiny organisms that mostly just float around in the water. There's zooplankton that are animals, and phytoplankton that are plants, and they're all different kinds of creatures from crustaceans and mollusks to diatoms, which are algae with these beautiful little glass shells, almost, and there are zillions of them in the oceans and they're incredibly important to both to global food chain and the atmosphere. Most of the bigger organisms that eat things in the sea, including us, ultimately are eating plankton of various kinds that have come up the food chain and turned into the protein that we eat out of the ocean.

They are also–scientists say the phytoplankton are also responsible for producing roughly half of the oxygen in the atmosphere that keeps us and all other oxygen-breathing organisms, which is pretty much everything, alive.

SCHACHTER: And so Tara was out there doing what?

THOMSON: Well they set out to try to document just what's out there, in terms of the numbers and kinds of plankton, and what they found was almost as amazing as the creatures themselves. They took more than 30-thousand water samples and from those they recorded a million and a half difference species, which is way more than we knew existed beforehand. And of course even in sailing 70-thousand miles they only covered a tiny fraction of the total volume of the sea, so you can imagine that there are likely millions more species that have yet to be documented.

SCHACHTER: So, basically–plankton, they're more than pretty pictures?

THOMSON: Yeah! But there are some really pretty pictures, and you can see them on our website, The World dot org.

SCHACHTER: That's right. It's always fun what gets different people excited.

THOMSON: (Laughs)

SCHACHTER: That's The World's Peter Thomson. Thank you!

THOMSON: Thanks, Aaron.