"Sea Unseen" Photography Exhibit Opens In Passages Of The Deep

April 07, 2010

An exhibit of unusual photographs is on display in the Oregon Coast Aquarium’s Passages of the Deep exhibit. “Sea Unseen” is a collection of photographs taken by fisheries biologist Carla Stehr, whose extraordinary images of Pacific marine life are viewed and photographed through a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM). Peering into this microscope reveals a realm where unlikely shapes and textures emerge; revealing a fantastic world beyond what is visible to the human eye.

The “Sea Unseen” exhibit features highly-magnified images of fish scales and sensory cells, diatoms, dinoflagellates, marine worms and octopus suckers, among other intricate structures and sea creatures that cannot be seen by the naked eye. Occasionally, by sheer luck, the timing is just right to show a unique moment in the life of a marine organism.

The SEM is a state of the art technology that uses electrons to provide information about the surface structure of a sample, and can magnify images up to 300,000 times. The images have a three-dimensional appearance that is artistic and informative.

“I think people are captivated by the unexpected beauty of organisms when they are seen with a microscope,” said Stehr. “It opens up a new level of understanding that even the smallest organisms (such as single celled diatoms) are amazingly complex.” Stehr grew up in Olympia where she spent many hours on Budd Inlet observing and identifying creatures that lived on the beach. In 1976, she began working at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) newly established electron microscopy lab.

Stehr and other scientists have operated the SEM for over 30 years, and her photographs have helped the Northwest Fisheries Science Center (NWFSC) advance scientific knowledge of fish development, harmful algal blooms, and the effects of contaminants on marine organisms. She completed a MS degree in 1981 at the UW School of Fisheries, using electron microscopy to study fish eggs. SEM images of salmon olfactory cells have helped scientists understand of how pollutants such as copper and other metals can disrupt salmon homing behavior and their ability to smell their way home.