The Skin of The Sea: where the sky touches the Ocean

Everything in nature serves a purpose, even if we do not understand it or fail to identify it. Some natural processes are so subtle it can be easy to think that they simply do not exist. Look at the sky and then at the ocean: one over the other, so distinguishable, and never seeming to touch. But they do. There is a thin layer of ocean surface in contact with the air, and in it, many chemical and biological processes take place.”  schmidtocean.org

A culture of the bioluminescent bacterium Photobacterium phosphoreum in a tea cup.The complex fluctuations in bioluminescence are generated by the bacteria as they respond to the highly dynamic film that is the Sea Surface Microlayer. 

Exploring the Invisible 2009-2011 was a Wellcome Trust funded collaborative project between artist Anne Brodie, myself, and writer and researcher Caterina Albano. The work explored the bioluminescent bacterium, Photobacterium phosphoreum, a light-emitting marine lifeform commonly found in sea water.

Through enquiry and experimentation, that transcended the traditional boundaries of art and science, the project developed a large body of photographic and moving image works and a number of live installations that reimagined our encounter with these beguiling light emitting bacteria. Please follow the link below for more information on the project

http://www.annebrodie.com/#/exploringtheinvisible/

Anne and I would spend many hours in the dark room interacting with these bacteria,  and under the influence of their beguiling cold blue light. When we were working with artificial seawater liquid cultures of them, we noticed that when we had turned our backs on the large culture flasks, and allowed them to become still for a time, the bioluminescence began to form astonishing and complex patterns at the air/liquid interface. We documented this process in a number of works. Please see the videos below.

A culture of the bioluminescent bacterium Photobacterium phosphoreum in a Petri dish. The complex fluctuations in bioluminescence are generated by the bacteria as they respond to the highly dynamic film that is the Sea Surface Microlayer.

A culture of the bioluminescent bacterium Photobacterium phosphoreum in a gravy boat. The complex fluctuations in bioluminescence are generated by the bacteria as they respond to the highly dynamic film that is the Sea Surface Microlayer.

 

A culture of the bioluminescent bacterium Photobacterium phosphoreum in a wine glass. The complex fluctuations in bioluminescence are generated by the bacteria as they respond to the highly dynamic film that is the Sea Surface Microlayer.

We didn’t know it then, but what we were observing was the activity of the sea surface microlayer (SML) or the skin of the sea. This microlayer is the top 1000 micrometres of the ocean surface, and the boundary layer where all exchange occurs between the atmosphere and the ocean. This “skin” develops at the surface of the ocean (and also on lakes and ponds) where organic compounds come into contact with the atmosphere. It affects how quickly gasses can exchange between the atmosphere and the ocean, and is critical in carbon dioxide exchanges and climate change modelling. Moreover, much research has shown that the SML contains elevated concentrations of bacteria, viruses, toxic metals and organic anthropogenic  pollutants as compared to the sub-surface water. The complex fluctuations in bioluminescence are generated by the bacteria responding to this highly dynamic layer.

In the videos above the phenomenon is viewed from above. Below is a video of a small cell with the activity of the SML being viewed side on.

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