Featured Image Credit: Ryo Minemizu
By Eva Gruber
Plankton is one of the most important components of our planet, but due to its size, there is still very little that we understand about these diverse organisms. Plankton is actually a vast collection of species from diverse taxa and simply are defined as aquatic life that exists in a floating stage drifting with the currents. Many of them are larval stages of larger organisms such as fish, squid, and corals, although many of them spend their whole life as plankton as well. One of the first steps in completing our understanding of the fascinating world of plankton and the role it plays in the marine ecosystem is to simply document the dizzying array of species that make up this assemblage.
However, photographing plankton is no simple task. Only the most determined underwater photographers can even begin to think about delving into the planktonic realm. The main reason this presents such a major challenge is simply their minuscule size. Most plankton are microscopic, such as foramniferans, diatoms, and bacteria and viruses.
As of yet, these microplankton require careful study in a lab setting with a microscope. However, there are still many planktonic organisms that can be photographed in the wild, with the smallest limit being around 2 millimeters long – that’s 0.08 inches long!
Ryo Minemizu is one of the foremost underwater photographers specializing in plankton, and his photographs are some of the most beautiful and detailed images we have of the tiny living organisms drifting the oceans of our planet. In fact, it is reasonable to assume that many of the organisms he has photographed are new to science! Minemizu has been photographing underwater for two decades, and in addition to pictorial books and technical books, also gives seminars and talks on the art and science of plankton photography.
So how does he do it? You can bet that plankton photographers rise to the challenge and have some very specialized gear – in fact, Minemizu has even developed his own lighting system that will highlight the fantastic shapes and colors of tiny plankton. In addition, being in the right place at the right time is critical, and in order to achieve that, Minemizu spends about eight hours a day underwater just drifting and waiting for the right moments.
The most important time of the day is actually when the sun sets when the largest migration on the planet takes place – the diel vertical migration – where marine and freshwater plankton alike move from deep to shallow water. Minemizu has pioneered this “black water” approach to plankton photography. Talk about devotion to your craft!
Most people don’t think of conservation issues when it comes to microscopic organisms – however, they play an absolutely critical role in the ecosystem of the oceans and the planet. To lose microscopic species to threats like pollution, climate change, and ecosystem degradation before we even have a chance to recognize and study them is a tragic thing indeed. By helping to conserve our oceans, we are preserving not only our charismatic whales and fish and corals (which ultimately rely on plankton), but also the beautiful array of plankton that are not only fascinating but constitute a central piece in the puzzle of life on our planet.