Seep Search

Acharax Clam

Sediment mural of acharax clam and pogonophoran worms

Since I am especially interested in vent animals like the yeti crab that use symbiotic bacteria to gain energy from chemical vents and seeps at the seafloor, I’ve been especially excited about the activities of our expedition’s SEEPS team. The closest known chemical seeps are off the coast of Oregon, but the Scripps researchers aboard this vessel believe that there may be seeps along the San Diego margin. They’ve been surveying the seafloor looking for surface anomalies that might indicate seeps, and a few days ago an acharax clam, as well as many pogonophoran worms—both of which are often associated with seep sites—were found during recent multicore deployments. We returned to that site yesterday hoping to collect sediment and fauna that might indicate local seeps. In honor of this seep search, I painted the acharax among a field of phogonophoran worms as a sort of totemic beacon for other seep animals. Since the ROV is still shakey, we’ll be relying on isotope analysis once we get back to the lab. Meanwhile, we’ve continued to collect many exciting invertebrates through additional trawls and plankton net tows. Sea cucumbers were a special treat because they do not keep their shape or color well once they have been preserved. I finally had the chance to handle, observe, and draw a few kinds.

Lily with Sea Cucumber

Posing with a sea cucumber collected during the trawl

Sketch of Sea Cucumber

Sketchbook drawing of sea cucumber

Ask Lily

Lily’s half way through her Pacific Ocean adventure and if you’ve been following it on this blog you probably have a question or two for her.  She’s agreed to check your questions here and post her answers and thoughts about what’s on your mind as it relates to her activities on the Scripps research ship.

So post your questions in the comments and Lily will get them and respond.


Sorting through the trawl net with researchers Eric and Blanka

As I mentioned, our submersible ROV is brand new, so we are still ironing out many kinks. Since the ROV team has not been able to thoroughly survey the seafloor with our ROVs camera, they decided to use a net to trawl two benthic sites. While trawling is more invasive than sending down a camera, I was pleased because it meant we got to harvest lots of larger fauna from the sea floor that would not be collected by multicoring—which focuses more on very small sediment-dwelling animals.

Posing with my freshly collected spider crab muse and the resulting
sediment mural

My favorite trawl finds were of course my beloved crustaceans. We picked up a huge spider crab, which became the subject of my sediment mural. It’s been such a treat to look at these animals while they are still living and moving. They are great subjects for more typical media and even though it’s only Day 5, my sketchbook is almost full. While we preserved the smaller fauna, we returned many of the larger specimens to the sea when I finished painting them.

Squat lobster collected from 300m down during our trawl and the sketch
it inspired

The Little Things in Life

Life Aquatic: inside the “bow dome”

While our submersible vehicle is remote-operated, we still got the chance to experience a submarine-style view.  The RV Melville is equipped with a “bow dome” below the front of the ship, full of portals that show life underwater.  Captain Chris took us on a special tour of the bow dome.  Often you can see dolphins swimming alongside.  They didn’t show while we were down there yesterday, but I was more excited about the gooseneck barnacles attached to the porthole anyway.

Tuesday’s soft sediment mural: Mud Balls!

My bias toward smaller fauna coincides with much of the research aboard this ship.  For the first few days, the multicore mechanism brought up tons of tiny sediment-dwelling creatures.  These researchers are especially interested in animals that thrive in the deep ocean where there is very little oxygen.  Our samples from around 800 m below the seas surface were replete with single-celled organisms, such as protozoa.  The organisms surrounds themselves with sediment and detritus, forming a casing that looks like branching chains or else fuzzy spheres.  Scientists refer to the latter simply as “mud balls.”

Waves of Inspiration

The following blog post was originally written for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s San Diego Coastal Expedition blog.

Lily Simonson paints a temporary mural of a curratulid polychaete aboard R/V Melville, using sediment collected 800 meters below the surface.

The siren song that led me to sea came from 7,000 feet below the ocean’s surface, when scientists discovered an extraordinary crustacean thriving around underwater volcanoes. The yeti crab, Kiwa hirsute, whose lushly setae-covered albino pincers and unique biology instantly inspired a new series of artworks. I am an artist with almost no background in science, but I have become immersed in the world of oceanography and marine biology over the past 6 years. I always prefer to observe my subjects directly, so when my obsession with more exotic deep sea invertebrates took over my art practice, I began visiting marine labs to view my subjects “in the flesh.” I had already traveled twice to Paris to visit and draw the Kiwa hirsute holotype by the time Scripps Institution of Oceanography alumnus (then a Ph.D. student) Andrew Thurber discovered its cousin, Kiwa puravida, at cold seeps near Costa Rica.

Lily Simonson, Yeti Crab Embrace, 2011, Oil on canvas, 24×30 inches.

I soon became a frequent guest at Lisa Levin’s benthic lab at the Scripps Institiution of Oceanography, first coming to observe and sketch the yeti crab. But with each foray, Levin introduced me to more and more deep sea benthic animals. Slowly these strange and fantastic polychaete worms, crustaceans, and bivalves made their way into my practice, until I became totally hooked on painting all kinds of seafloor fauna.

Wet and Wild, my current exhibition on view at CB1 Gallery through July 29, includes over a dozen paintings inspired by the Scripps collection. Using Renaissance glazing techniques on a massive scale, my invertebrate subjects are arranged into dramatic compositions. Magnifying the tiny subjects to human size allows me to truly investigate each animal’s anatomy, while transporting viewers to a new reality.

Lily Simonson “Wet and Wild” on view at CB1 Gallery through July 29.
Installation view by Jay Oligny.

This journey on the Melville has the potential to transform my work.  Since my normal subjects are long-dead preserved specimens, whose color has been leeched and shape has been shifted, it will be a big treat to observe, draw, and paint animals as soon as they are harvested.  I’ll be working with the ship’s multicore machine, which will burrow into the  soft sediment, hundreds of meters down, to retrieve a cross section of the ocean floor along the San Diego Margin.

Today the silt deposits collected by the multicorer brought not only new subject matter, but an entirely new medium. Research Technician Drew suggested that since I didn’t have any big canvases with me, I make use of the ship’s large surfaces and render my observations of fauna using the excess silt harvested by the multicorer. Today I drew cirratulid polychaete sieved from the seafloor sediment, and I plan to use the mud to render a new drawing every day, in addition to drawing and painting in my sketchbook.  I’ll continue to liveblog the artwork I create on board the Melville over the coming week at