Drifting Aliens of Inner Space

September 29, 2015

There are aliens that exist beyond our wildest imaginations,
drifting through the darkness, floating at the mercy of the sea.

3-5-6 planktn(SALPS)0.jpg

A beautiful display of aggregating colonial salps looks like a transparent blue-hued flower floating through the sea.
© Dr. Richard Murphy, Ocean Futures Society

The first time I laid eyes on them – I mean really saw them – I was spellbound by the supurb ballet performed by the most delicate of all nature’s creatures. One thousand miles east of Papua New Guinea off an island called Nauru, my colleague Dr. Richard Murphy and I undertook a voyage into the dark stillness of the sea at night to capture images of the elusive, nearly invisible aliens that nearly all life on Earth depends upon for survival – including us.

Dr. Richard Murphy and I arrived in Papua New Guinea for the first time many years ago for an exciting new project that we had dreamed about for years: the opportunity to bring a group of young adults into remote islands of the Pacific Ocean to give them first-hand experience about our life support system, the ocean. One evening in the black stillness of the night, we decided to venture away from the reef and see what might be found in the dark waters of the night ocean. With masks and snorkels on our faces and fins on our feet, we swam out from a cliff that descended to the deep sea, and suddenly the seemingly black water world burst with life.

In a display of dazzling colors, fantastical shapes and peculiar designs, I was face-to-face with creatures that look stranger than science fiction creations. Some drift daintily with trailing gelatinous wisps extending out into the darkness, while others pump rhythmically, flashing iridescent colors of the rainbow as tiny paddles refract the light of our dive lights. Most are smaller than a naked eye can see, but some are the longest animals on the planet. They look like a spectacle out of a fantasy, a nightmare, or a world of UFO’s. In the darkness of inner space, these fantastical creatures are plankton – a soup of drifters, animals, plants, and bacteria, in proportions large and small, yielding solely to power of the currents.

Planktos, which comes from the Greek word meaning wandering, refers to the drifting characteristic that defines all the plankton. At the mercy of the sea, most plankton cannot swim against a current. While they are drifters on the whole, these vagabonds of the open sea are more diverse than any other living collective on Earth. With nowhere to hide in the vast open ocean, life becomes transparent. Where food is sparse in the warm tropical seas, the creative force of evolution invents. Some spend their entire lives wandering among the currents, never experiencing the bottom of the ocean; they are the endless drifters of liquid space. Others are drifters only for parts of their lifecycle, such as the larvae stages of most fish, sea urchins, sea stars, and marine worms. In all these varieties, from the foundational species upon which all other life on Earth depends, to the longest animal on our planet, there exists a planktonic form within most domains in the tree of ocean life.

The first to catch our eyes and enchant us were the larger creatures of the plankton, the gelatinous zooplankton – the jelly-like, animal wanderers. These are the manifestations of some of our wildest dreams and fantasies. They are the creatures that look like alien invaders, displaying strange wings, peculiar tails, or protruding arms, with paper-thin membranes encasing fleshy transparent organs. They are, as Dr. Murphy called them, the space stations, smoke screens and crystal chandeliers. During daylight, they lurk in the depths and darkness of the abyss. When the sun sets, in a display unlike anything else on the planet, the largest migration of biomass on Earth rises to meet the moonlight and feast in the shallow waters under the protective cover of night’s darkness. With fragile membranes, these delicate animal wanderers would be an easy and delicious treat for larger fish and mammals

In this world of utter darkness, animals must find ways to communicate to one another. Many use chemical signals, releasing scents that spread through the water to attract potential mates or honing in on them to locate something to eat. Some may use sound. But just like us, most animals rely immensely on light. In the cover of darkness, as we snorkel among the water column, it only takes a moment to wave our arms and feet fervently before flashes of bright green light suddenly surround us. In another instant they are gone. We momentarily disturbed some of the smallest, and most interesting processes of life on Earth. Their response is the remarkable underwater symphony known as bioluminescence.

3-25-7 planktn2(CTENOPHORE)_1_0.jpg

The iridescent comb plates of this ctenophore reflects light from our dive lights, illuminating a dancing wave of rainbow colors.
© Dr. Richard Murphy, Ocean Futures Society

The ability to create light in a world of darkness sounds like magic. How could such an extraordinary capacity evolve in a world of tiny drifters? The oceans cover more than two-thirds of the surface of our planet and its volume holds the largest habitable space for life on Earth, a space for the soup of drifters. Of all the liquid water on our planet, most of it is dark. Only the top few hundred feet are privileged to receive the sun’s energy-carrying rays, since water quickly absorbs sunlight, halting it from reaching the deep ocean. With so much of the living space fated in infinite darkness, nature evolved its own way to create light from the magic of chemistry.

Some use it to startle predators – flashing a firework display of thrilling colors – to astound or confuse whatever is attacking it. Other use it as a decoy to attract even larger predators in the hopes that in can escape in the ensuing battle between a new predator and the animal that was trying to eat it in the first place. Bioluminescence can be used to lure in small animals that are drawn to its bright source before snatching unsuspecting prey. Yet the most often seen bioluminescence that occurs in all the worlds oceans are produced by the tiniest life, the small plants and plant-like creatures that comprise the phytoplankton.

While the large zooplankton are enchanting with their alien diversity, it is the small phytoplankton to which we truthfully owe our habitable planet, and consequently, our human lives. These tiny bobbing drifting dancers appear in various forms and complex, elaborate designs. Some exhibit symmetrical or crystal-like structures that look like something out of a fairytale, such as ornate snowflakes or colorful concentric spheres. As a trained architect who dreamed of one-day building cities under the sea, their structural intricacies fascinate me. But it is not only their design that intrigues me, but more importantly, their role in our lives.

From space, you can see bloom of phytoplankton in regions where nutrients are rich and sunlight is abundant. Some types of phytoplankton blooms can be toxic, causing red tides that emit toxic chemicals killing fish and other sea life around it. Yet even more startling and fascinating is that phytoplankton were the first to provide our primordial Earth with an oxygen-rich atmosphere, catalyzing the evolution of complex life. Every other breath you take is a gift from the phytoplankton – they support half of all oxygen production on Earth – these small drifters in the open sea.

Holly plnktn Murph Bj 54.jpg

Lost in an underwater snowstorm of plankton, Jean-Michel Cousteau diver, Holly Lohuis, illuminates a sea urchin while her underwater light, attracting a feeding frenzy of crustaceans, worms and many other planktonic species.
© Dr. Richard Murphy, Ocean Futures Society

They are also the foundation of the food web. Gathering in the shallow ocean waters, phytoplankton create biomass from raw nutrients and harnessing the energy of the sun, which then goes on to feed the zooplankton, the larger fish, the larger animals, and ultimately, the largest species to ever live on Earth – the great whales. At times they can support the formation of rain clouds over the open ocean, which sweep over land, nourishing crops and feeding human civilizations. And if that isn’t enough – the ghosts of phytoplankton are fueling us today. The fossil fuels that we use to run our lives every day include the decomposed remnants of phytoplankton falling to the seafloor over millennia and taking another tens of millions of years to turn into the hydrocarbon rich remains we call petroleum.

Clearly, the use of these fossil fuels has limits. Taking millions of years to form, humans have been extracting these carbon rich sources in less than one hundred years and the rate only continues to increase. It is a finite resource we are exploiting at an unsustainable rate. If there is anything to learn from these drifters of the ocean realm, it is that we rely on their abundance to support and nourish our human world. A currently warming planet and acidifying ocean from the burning of fossil fuels is changing the composition of planktonic life. We need oxygen, food, and fuel. No plankton, no us. The choice is ours.

Warm regards,


Jean-Michel Cousteau
President, Ocean Futures Society
with Jaclyn Mandoske