Have you ever thought of what the microscopic, drifting, primary producers that the ocean is teeming with have done for you? These are the phytoplankton, and they are grazed by animals known as zooplankton. All ocean life and we humans, depend on plankton because they are the start of the food chain.
Plankton dominates the biomass of the oceans. Phytoplankton perform nearly half of the photosynthesis on Earth, fixing carbon dioxide and producing half of the oxygen we breathe. The most common zooplankton, the copepods, outnumber insects as the most abundant animals on Earth. The abundance and success of all marine life is dependent on the health of the plankton. They are our oceanic "canaries in the coal mine". Plankton also impacts human health directly. Some phytoplankton species are toxic and form large harmful algal blooms, contaminating shellfish and causing poisoning and death in humans. Some zooplankton are venomous, such as the box jellyfish and lrukandji species, causing severe pain and death and beach closures in Northern Australia.
In her current exhibition, artist Diane Masters has been inspired to create stunning artwork of plankton. She collaborated with Claire Davies and Dr Ruth Eriksen who work in the IMOS Australian Plankton Survey sub-facility.
The collaboration began when Claire moved to Hobart and met up with long-time friend and dive buddy, Diane Masters. Diane Masters is a visual artist based in Hobart, Tasmania. She works as a painter, printmaker and installation artist. Over coffee Di asked Claire exactly what it was she did at work. She knew what plankton was but had no idea of the scale that the word plankton encompasses. Claire invited Di to the lab and showed her some planktons under the microscope and some of the photos that our team had taken. Di was immediately enthralled and the seed of Undercurrent was sown.
Di’s previous works had come under the theme of ‘Drifting’, through migration, cultural shift and a nomadic sense of belonging crossing elemental landscapes. Plankton fitted directly into that space. Ruth’s love of plankton and enthusiasm quickly saw her become part of the project as Ruth and Claire continued to send Di photos of all the especially beautiful planktons they saw in the samples. Di worked over two years to complete the amazing set of etchings through the aquatint process in the exhibition.
An important part of the IMOS biological observing is the work we do on plankton. IMOS plankton observations come from monthly water sampling at our seven National Reference Stations. One of the these is located off Maria Island, where we have 70 years of historical data to build on. The others are off Sydney, Brisbane, Townsville, Darwin, Perth, and Adelaide. IMOS also collects plankton with Continuous Plankton Recorders, very robust instruments towed behind ships of opportunity that capture plankton between silks.
All of these samples come back to labs in Brisbane and Hobart where they are identified and counted and turned into datasets that can be used to understand distribution and abundance of species, and how this is varying and changing through time. Vitally important to understanding the state of our marine ecosystems.
IMOS Director, Tim Moltmann introduced the exhibition in Hobart at the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies Gallery on Wednesday 1st of February, and Christine Milne officially opened the exhibition.
“The IMOS plankton observations represents a big effort, involving a lot of planning and preparation, time at sea, time in the lab peering down microscopes, work on databases and data analysis. But in talking to the people that do this work you realise they are also motivated by the sheer beauty of these tiny plants and animals, and the wonder of what they do,” says Mr Moltmann.
“It’s this beauty and wonder that I’m sure has captured Di Masters’ imagination as an artist.”
“As publicly funded scientists we must take responsibility for communicating our work to the public. This glorious partnership between science and art is a great way to do that.”
Undercurrent by Diane Masters will be in the IMAS exhibition space at our Waterfront Building from 1 February until 30 March 2017.