Published: November 2007 Marine Miniatures
Small Wonders
The secret life of marine microfauna.
By Jennifer S. Holland
National Geographic Staff

"Small is beautiful," declared economist E. F. Schumacher. Wise perspective for a planet where most organisms are built on a minor scale. A dipperful of seawater can reveal a hodgepodge of tiny free-swimmers and nebulous drifters that fog the water column. Many are microscopic. Others would be visible except they're virtually transparent. Gelatinous shape-shifters lazily ride the currents. Familiar forms in miniature—wide-eyed fish larvae, baby squid and octopuses—dart freely. Their lives are precarious. Some wear shells or exude toxins against predators; others are active only after dark. But untold numbers succumb to hungry mouths—each other's or those of bigger foe

To see the show, photographer David Liittschwager joined scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration off the island of Hawaii. Inhabitants must specialize to survive in these open, nutrient-poor waters—making for rich diversity. Liittschwager sampled with a bucket and fine-mesh net; at night, he lowered lights as lures. What squirmed toward the glow? "A genuine riot of life," he says. The scientists kept some animals on board to confirm identities; the rest they returned to the sea.

Condenser lenses cast focused beams to outline see-through specimens; side lighting rendered a baby flounder iridescent, and a backlight exposed its developing bones and organs. Tinkering with light, Liittschwager captured the nearly invisible.