Marine scientist Edith Widder has spent a lifetime studying bioluminescence, often alone in a small submersible deep in the ocean. On some of these excursions, she felt like a “tea bag on a string,” although during descents and ascents, the experience was more akin to being “inside a martini shaker.” During one dive, seawater began leaking into her vehicle, but thankfully, she reached the surface safely. As I began reading Below the Edge of Darkness: A Memoir of Exploring Light and Life in the Deep Sea, my initial thought was, “Boy, I would never do that.”
However, Widder’s passion is so contagious that by the end of the book, I was yearning to explore these deep, dark waters with her. (Dr. Widder, I’m available!) The wonders she has witnessed are completely compelling. After her initial dive, she expressed her sense of awe by blurting out, “It’s like the Fourth of July down there!” Recalling that formative experience, she adds, “It was a mixture of the most brilliant blues ever to grace an artist’s palette—azure, cobalt, cerulean, lapis, neon—supernatural hues, emitting rather than refracting light.”
Widder’s pioneering career got off to a rocky start. During her freshman year at Tufts University, she was hospitalized for months after suffering horrific complications from a spinal fusion needed to heal her broken back. She nearly died and even experienced temporary blindness, but ever since, she’s spent her life looking—investigating “the visual ecology of the largest living space on Earth.”
Widder notes that as a scientist, she was trained never to write in the first person, which means that penning a memoir did not come naturally. However, she’s a clear, informative writer with exciting adventures to share, including an intriguing encounter with Fidel Castro while exploring ocean waters near Cuba and developing a special camera that led to the first video documentation of the elusive giant squid, earning her the nickname “the Squid Whisperer.” Her enthusiasm is matched by her sense of humor, which is frequently on full display in footnotes. As founder of the Ocean Research & Conservation Association (ORCA), Widder also conveys the vital importance of preserving our ocean habitats.
With Widder as their guide, readers of Below the Edge of Darkness will become staunch champions of the spectacular bioluminescent world that thrives in the ocean’s depths. It’s a display they’ll long to see, and an education they’ll never forget.