Fearless science UF researcher Jessica Whelpley explored the deep sea with OceanX. We got her post-dive reaction.

By Stephenie Livingston/UF News

The deep sea is a harsh, otherworldly environment few humans get the chance to see. That is, without advanced technology. This month, University of Florida doctoral researcher Jessica Whelpley with the Whitney Lab for Marine Bioscience participated in deep-sea dives in a state-of-the-art submersible developed by OceanX.

She accompanied world-renowned biologist Edith Widder and co-founder of Ocean Research and Conservation Association, who studies bioluminescent organisms.

“As we descended to a depth of 740 meters, Edie explained to me how light changes at various depth ranges and how animals have adapted to live in these conditions,” reported Whelpley from The Bahamas aboard the OceanX vessel Alucia.

UF News sat down with Whelpley to discuss what it was like exploring the deep sea for the first time with the scientist who inspired her career.

The vessel Alucia shown here carries a submersible named Nadir. Whelpley joined the expedition to explore Exuma Sound in The Bahamas, a deep-sea region scientists know little about. The expedition was led by researchers with the Cape Eleuthera Institute and the Whitney Lab.

Q: What did you gain from this expedition that will inform your research?

"I’m a doctoral student in Joe Ryan’s lab at UF’s Whitney Laboratory. In collaboration with Dr. Gustav Paulay at UF's Florida Museum of Natural History, we are studying the evolution of sea cucumbers, a group of animals that are closely related to sea stars and sea urchins. Sea cucumbers are found in every region of the ocean, from the coast to the deep sea and from tropical equatorial waters to each of the poles.

Participating in this research expedition allowed me to observe these animals directly in an environment normally inaccessible to most researchers, and it allowed us to expand the number of individual species of sea cucumbers we are studying. Part of my research will involve a comparative study of sea cucumbers found in the coastal regions and the deep sea, so this research cruise provided me with important material.

In addition to sea cucumbers, we also collected many different types of invertebrates such as sea slugs, sponges and polychaetes. These animals will provide significant information regarding the biodiversity of the Exuma Sound region. Because this area is largely unstudied, there is always a chance we may find we have discovered some new species once full analysis is completed of the materials collected, which is very exciting!"

How cool that you got to dive down with world-renowned marine biologist Edith Widder! What were your most interesting takeaways from your time with her?

"It is very cool! Dr. Widder is a visual ecologist who primarily studies bioluminescence in marine organisms and has participated in over 250 sub dives during her scientific career. I feel incredibly fortunate to have participated in this research cruise and to have my first submersible dive be with Edie is beyond amazing! Edie has been a hero of mine since I first started to explore the world of marine biology as a teenager. She was one of the first woman scientists I had as a role model and her work has inspired me to pursue a career in science.

Jessica Whelpley (left), Lee Frey and Edith Widder in the OceanX submersible.

When we reached the deepest point of our dive, 740 m (~2500 ft), Lee Frey (a sub pilot for OceanX) turned off all of the sub lights so we could attempt to observe a phenomenon Edie calls “bioluminescent flashback." The darkness surrounding us was incredible and something, Edie pointed out, very few people in the world get to experience. We covered our eyes and Lee flashed the submersible lights on and off. When we opened our eyes, we observed tiny flashes of bioluminescent light surrounding us. She’s currently working to document and explain this phenomenon and I’m excited to see what she discovers!

The most important takeaway from this experience was that there is so much on our planet that is still unexplained and it is incredibly important for us to keep studying the amazing diversity of life on Earth!

What was your reaction to experiencing the deep sea up close and in person for the first time?

"I’m honestly still in shock! Hours after returning to the boat, I was still shaking from adrenaline and today I’m struggling to explain how transformative this experience was. My understanding of the world we inhabit has completely changed. This experience made me fall in love with science and the natural world all over again.

Images from Exuma Sound: A sea cucumber (left) and an arrow crab.

Prior to participating in this expedition, I watched a lot of footage from remotely operated vehicle (ROV) dives and spent time observing museum specimens that have been collected from the deep-sea, which I thought was astonishing in and of itself, but nothing compares to experiencing the deep sea firsthand in a submersible. It was incredible to enter a landscape that is so alien from our own. It's an environment untouched by sunlight that is inhabited by a menagerie of strange and wonderful organisms unlike anything on land.

As we ascended to the surface, we encountered a deepwater reef that was teaming with coral, sponges, fish and more! It was incredible to see the change between the deep, light-limited environment to this reef that has previously not been documented. As we surfaced and we were bathed in sunlight, we saw cruise ships and other boats filled with people.

It was an interesting reality to return to, and I couldn’t help but wonder if any of them had any clue about the incredible ecosystems hiding in the depths below them.

It was an amazing privilege to be a part of the exploration of the Exuma Sound and to help document and study this environment! I’m very grateful to OceanX, the crew of the Alucia and the researchers at Cape Eleuthera Institute for giving me the opportunity to participate and experience the deep-sea in person!"

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Photos and video courtesy of OceanX, Cape Eleuthera Institute, Edith Widder and Meg Gilbert.

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