Chaetoceros spp.  images acquired from the R/V  Ocean Starr  Flow Cam.  Chaetoceros spp.  are a diatom found in the Chukchi/Northern Bering Sea.

Chaetoceros spp. images acquired from the R/V Ocean Starr Flow Cam. Chaetoceros spp. are a diatom found in the Chukchi/Northern Bering Sea.

“See anything yet?” I asked Marty Reedy, our marine animal observer, several times today or in the span of days, I can’t seem to recall—time can become irrelevant on a boat. I can only imagine the question has become borderline pestilent for him as I’m sure I’m not the only one asking him. In all actuality, he is now keen on the sound of my footsteps (and others) approaching the bridge, sighing upon hearing my Clydesdale hooves clamber up the stairwell.

“Either a house or a cow,” replies Catherine Berchok, one of the science crew upon entering the bridge, saving Marty from any kind of disparaging retort. While I was eagerly waiting for Marty’s response—a bowhead, beluga or magic unicorn—perhaps, in a way, Catherine’s remark has summed up a rather lackluster performance of marine life for seabirds and marine mammals in the recent days. Aside from a tug and barge we were steaming towards for most of the morning, there wasn’t a whole lot more to see. The recent grey cloud ceiling and an even greyer ocean is like a liquid desert, stark and devoid of color and life. Or is it? What if I were to tell you that under the ocean lies a scene completely different from what was just described?

Now before I divulge into these probing questions, a prelude is absolutely necessary to capture my current train of thought. You see, I have been watching a ton of Marvel superhero movies lately—all the blockbuster hits and even non-comic book movies too. The multiverse, infinity stones, intergalactic space invasions have entirely saturated my feeble cerebral latticework that I call my brain. And it seems all my shipmates have seen the final Avengers movie which has me postulating far-fetched theories to them ad-nauseum that they too probably recognize the Clydesdale trot like Marty. Be that as it may, let’s answer our earlier question from before…as if written by James Cameron, Michael Bay, or Stan Lee himself.

~~

“In a world…” wait. Let me start over after clearing my throat and adding a raspy undertone for cinematic effect. Lights, camera, roll the 30 second trailer and the ensuing narrative a dabble of creative science fiction. Ahem.

“In a world where creatures like Triceratium, Chaetoceros, and Dinophysis roamed the earth, one doesn’t need to look up…but down. Join an intrepid team of phytoplankton as they journey through the frigid [well not anymore, thanks climate change] waters of the unrelenting Arctic in a time and place of clashing colonies of diatoms and dinoflagellates to defend their populations from certain peril. This August, the Arctic has a new batch of superphytos.”

Lisa Eisner prepares a size fraction chlorophyll sample, part of a phytoplankton production experiment. Photo credit: Brendan Smith/NPRB

Lisa Eisner prepares a size fraction chlorophyll sample, part of a phytoplankton production experiment. Photo credit: Brendan Smith/NPRB

By day, Dr. Lisa Eisner, Haley Cynar, Anna Mounsey, and Brendan Smith aka Bobo filter thousands of liters of Northern Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort sea water aboard the R/V Ocean Starr. All this to measure abundance, biomass, growth, and species of phytoplankton. Called primary producers, these tiny microscopic organisms transform inorganic carbon using light (photosynthesis) to generate energy and happen to be the first organisms served up on the dinner plate called the food web. Beneath the confused waves of Bering Strait lies billions of these phytoplankton—dinoflagellates, diatoms, coccolithophores, euglenophytes (most likely a word featured in the National Spelling Bee). Never again will you gulp seawater willingly after surfing the big kahuna with the thought of coccolithophores on the tip of your tongue. As for our star team of researchers…well their goal is simple: to better understand the phytoplankton community in the waters they are sampling, especially because the Arctic has been changing so dramatically in recent years with more light and increased temperatures.

But by night, Dr. Eisner, Cynar, Mounsey, and Bobo reveal their true alter egos.

Alarm bells sound from the -80°C freezers where our team of scientists store their phytoplankton filter samples. That can only mean one thing. Danger in the photic zone. Dr. Eisner looks to Cynar and Bobo in their super secret phyto lab only to see Mousney already gone from the lab. This couldn’t be a coincidence. **Disclaimer** for the purpose of the story arc, someone had to the be villain. Thankfully, Anna kindly agreed since her project is well studying the subject matter that comprises her villainous alter ego.

“Where’s Anna?” Bobo looks at Haley concerningly. Both seem stunned at her disappearance.

Sea water sample (foreground) being processed through the Flow Cam (background) revealing different phytoplankton species including diatoms and dinoflagellates.

Sea water sample (foreground) being processed through the Flow Cam (background) revealing different phytoplankton species including diatoms and dinoflagellates.

“To the Flow Cam,” Dr. Eisner announces as she turns towards the super computer used for identifying phytoplankton. Haley grabs a sample of water collected from the last CTD at the chlorophyll maximum and runs to the machine.

“Don’t forget the cryovial and pipette,” Bobo bellows from across the lab, and in cinematic form throws the two in the air in slow-mo. Suspense. Pause…only for Dr. Eisner to snatch the two mid-air and engage the Flow Cam machine.

The Flow Cam whizzes, whirs, and wuzzles. Instantly, Dr. Eisner, Haley, and Bobo are miniaturized, shrunk like Ms. Fizzle’s Magic School Bus into the vial of seawater. Only our three super scientists have transformed into Superphytos: Dr. Ceratium [Eisner], a dinoflagellate with three long delicate horns shaped like a trident; Thallasiosira [Cynar], a diatom chain made of silica that looks like beads strung together with a small string; Chaetoceros [Bobo], another silicate diatom with the appearance of a men’s green metal watch band with a whole bunch of spines at the corners of each link. As for Mousney? Well this is where the story gets interesting.

“The Acrobat is gone,” Thallasiosira notices quickly. She is referring to the Superphytos’ oscillating transportation device that measures temperature, salinity, and depth.

“It must have been Alexandrium. When she spoke of blooming near Ledyard Bay, I thought she was only kidding.” Dr. Ceratium looked more concerned than ever. Our Superphytos have experienced past outbursts of Alexandrium in the North Pacific, but they thought those days were behind it.

“Everything makes sense now. The warming temperatures in the Arctic waters could be a perfect place for Alexandrium to spread its toxins.” Thallasiosira looked worried.

“We have to save the bivalves,” yelled out Chaetoceros as he flexed his spines. Once known to cause lots of damage with his spines, our Superphyto has changed its ways since joining Dr. Ceratium. **Another Disclaimer**notice the backstory opportunity for a character-specific prequel like Wolverine from X-Men perhaps.

Thallasiosira  spp. photographed by the Flow Cam system. Courtesy Lisa Eisner/NOAA

Thallasiosira spp. photographed by the Flow Cam system. Courtesy Lisa Eisner/NOAA

Just then Alexandrium swooshes by on the Acrobat and veers to Ledyard Bay. “It looks like she engaged the fluorometer,” Thallasiosira exclaims while pointing at the Acrobat. A beam of light begins scanning our three Superphytos from underneath the Acrobat measuring their chlorophyll. The light has caused the team to fluoresce, saturating their photosynthetic pigments. A microplastic ball floats in front of the light sheltering the team. And like that Alexandrium disappears into the light blue hue of the photic zone.

“We have to find a way to stop Alexandrium and fast too. I…I can’t believe it would do something like this right under our frustules” Dr. Ceratium replies faintly. “After all we have been through” **Disclaimer** another potential prequel. “If we are too late, it could trigger a huge, unexpected phytoplankton bloom, or perhaps even worse…a Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning event!” Thallasiosira and Chaetoceros trembled with fear.

“Quick. Hop on!” Thallasiosira points to the microplastic ball. All three desperately use their spines, horns, and flagella to reach the microplastic. In despair, they cannot reach the ball.

“Superphytos…you need to colonize” Dr. Ceratium said desperately. Chaetoceros went first and began dividing its cells (i.e. links) into new cells with spines. Thallasiosira went next and filled the gap. Like a bridge, Thallasiosira and Chaetoceros stretched and pulled towards the ball for Dr. Ceratium to connect.

“Onwards to Ledyard Bay,” Chaetoceros shouted into the photic zone. But what is this? The water appears blurry ahead. “Oh no, the thermocline and halocline…what do we do?”

Will our Superphytos navigate through the physical oceanographic barriers? Will they get to Alexandrium in time to stop PSP? How will Dr. Ceratium, Thallasiosira, and Chaetoceros transform back into the people we love? Will anyone outside the science community even understand this terrible attempt at anthropomorphizing phytoplankton?

Tune in tomorrow for the exciting conclusion of our courageous Superphyto team….