Story by Vsevolod Pulya, RBTH
Photography by Alexander Semyonov, Val Darkin, Andrey Shpatak

Marine biologist and underwater photographer Alexander Semyonov is the driving force behind the Aquatilis expedition, which is to carry out unprecedented research into gelatinous plankton and use its findings to popularize science.

Academics from the U.S., Brazil, France, and other nations have already given their support to the project, the world’s first expedition to be financed by crowdfunding.

scroll down
 In the summer of 2013 an email from a young Russian scientist named Alexander Semyonov landed in planktologist William Hamner’s inbox. Written on behalf of a group of fellow researchers, Semyonov’s message requested assistance in organizing a round-the-world expedition with the aim of studying gelatinous plankton.

At first Hamner, who has been studying gelatinous plankton in their natural environment since 1975, just laughed, as local pranksters would often get in contact with the famous scientist. His method of diving in the open ocean with the help of a system of weighted lines (so-called blue water diving) and his numerous works on microbiology are considered among of the most significant developments in oceanic research in the last 50 years. 

Since then, however there has been little research into gelatinous plankton, and almost no new specialists have emerged. To check their knowledge, Hamner asked his Russian colleagues in his response to their email to tell him about the feeding habits of the rare ‘sea angel’ mollusk (Clione limacina). The answer he received was so detailed and original (it had never been published elsewhere) that he immediately realized he was dealing with professionals.

Semyonov had originally wanted to study the behavior of octopuses at the Faculty of Biology at Moscow State University but eventually he ended up examining the brains of cuttlefish. “It’s not such a big difference in layman’s terms but for me it was colossal,” he says. 

The young scientist eventually found himself a position at Moscow State University’s White Sea Biological Research Station where he headed a group of divers. Once he had experienced diving with a camera, he would never again be without one. The general public fell in love with his photographs of surprising underwater creatures, many of which resembled insanely abstract forms. 

Semyonov’s work has been featured in the online magazine WIRED as well as a number of other overseas publications, and RBTH featured a gallery of his photographs in 2012.

“The way to a layman’s mind is through beautiful pictures and cool videos,” Semyonov says confidently, adding that while most people would have a squeamish reaction to seeing how a seal’s carcass decomposes, “when it’s shown on the series Frozen Planet from under the ice in slow motion, however, it just blows your mind.”

His own photographs not only blow the mind, but they actually move science forward. Only a select few laboratories around the world are engaged in observational biology on a 
A Russian Indiana Jones 
contemporary level and nobody is moving into Semyonov’s specialist field of gelatinous plankton at all since it requires a huge investment in terms of time, money and training specialists in underwater photography.  
“The way to a layman’s mind is through beautiful pictures and cool videos” 
Only a select few laboratories around the world are engaged in observational biology 

“We could sail all our lives, and study an unbelievable number of medusae, and take beautiful photographs and videos telling everyone about the life of the ocean but there is no practical purpose in this,” says Semyonov. “Or we could just sail for a little while, unearth a medusa of some kind, and notice how it glows a purple color and extract a new protein from it, which would be twenty times smaller and would enable us to trace, for example, malignant cells and observe how they develop. Then - hey presto, this medusa has cured cancer.”

Gelatinous plankton is the collective name for several groups of animals: siphonophores, ctenophores, various jellyfish and so on. Their name suits their appearance: Their bodies are soft, like jelly. Moreover, their biomass can exceed that of all the fish and mammals that live in the world’s oceans. “They are one of the key components in the function of oceanic ecosystems, but almost nothing is known about them,” explains Semyonov.

In the 1960s and 1970s, scientists identified the green fluorescent protein GFP in the Aequorea victoria medusa, which made it possible to trace specific genes and diagnose a number of diseases. In 2008, Osamu Shimomura, Martin Chalfie and Roger Tsien were awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering this protein. Semyonov explains that for the past five years one of the principal movements in molecular biology has been the search for an even better (and smaller) protein, from which to trace genes. The only problem is that nobody is absolutely certain it exists at all. 
As the young marine biologist notes, it is impossible to catch an example of gelatinous plankton and study it in a laboratory – the only way is to combine laboratory work with diving in open water. “A ctenophore, which is a transparent, sausage-like creature, would swim and then suddenly dig into the side of the aquarium,” explains Semyonov. “It would start to scull into the wall, until it flattened out, dropped down, or died. They are simple in that they do not have a brain. Some of them, however, do have a brain, but what sort of a brain? It could be a nerve ending around the edge of a cupula, for example. This is what they use to make certain decisions,” he says.  
Gelatinous plankton's biomass can exceed that of all the fish and mammals that live in the world’s oceans 
Unknown gelatinous creatures  
"We could just sail for a little while and - hey presto, this medusa has cured cancer"

At a certain point, Semyonov realized that he wanted more than his work in the White Sea could offer. Naturally, he could have continued to build up his bank of underwater photographs and live off the royalties he earned from selling them. But, guided by a restless spirit, he dreaming of diving inaccessible locations. For that he needed his own vessel – but fate was about to step in. In February 2013, Andrei Smelyansky, an old acquaintance and a sea captain with 17 years’ experience, called him in Turkey and said: “I have a yacht, why don’t we do a round-the-world cruise?”

The yacht Aquatilis (meaning a marine organism that lives in an aquatic environment, after which the expedition itself was subsequently named) was built in 2006 and was designed to be very strong. “It’s a steel leviathan, able to ram a reef,” says Semyonov. After sailing extensively around the Mediterranean Sea on the yacht, Smelyansky ran out of money in 2009 and the vessel had to be docked in Marmaris in Turkey. Money is now needed for repairs, but this is just one of several expenses necessary for the forthcoming trip.

Incidentally, if they are able to raise enough money, the scientists plan to equip the vessel with all the latest equipment, including underwater robots capable of shooting high-definition video at a depth of up to 1,200 meters. If money is tight, the robots will be less complex and able to dive to shallower depths.

“I have a yacht, why don’t we do a round-the-world cruise?” 
What sort of vessel is able to ram a reef? 
If everything goes to plan, Aquatilis will become the world’s first expedition to be financed by crowdfunding 
Using people power

It is not just the deep sea capabilities of the robots that are dependent on funding - the future of the entire expedition, which is due to set off in the spring-summer of 2015, remains in doubt. Since Semyonov has little patience for red tape, he did not waste any time seeking state funding, but put his faith instead in the public. If everything goes to plan, Aquatilis will become the world’s first expedition to be financed by crowdfunding.

The first step to raise money on the Russian platform Boomstarter is already in hand. The Aquatilis team have managed to raise almost $57,000, even though their target was $43,000. According to Semyonov, most of this money was spent on preparing for the project’s international crowdfunding drive. At the end of April, the Aquatilis expedition also appeared on Indiegogo with an ambitious target of $1.5 million

Hiring the services of London-based Google copywriter Anna Bogdanova or New York-based German designer Tobias Van Schneider, who works with brands like BMW, Red Bull, and Sony, would ordinarily command an astronomical sum. But the two have produced an impressive website for Aquatilis virtually free of charge with straightforward, lively textual and visual content that brings the gelatinous plankton to life and aims to carve out a niche for marine science in pop culture.

As far as the support of the global scientific community is concerned, they, including William Hamner, are all celebrities in global marine biology: Casey Dunn and Stephen Haddock from the United States, Andre Morandini, a Brazilian specialist in medusae, and Frenchman Christian Sardet.

These people, Semyonov hopes, will help him to gain permission to enter ports and to dive in nature reserves. Aside from this, they have already pledged their participation in the laboratory side of the expedition - carrying out tests and observations on samples that team Aquatilis send them from far off seas. 
Semyonov is constantly investing everything that he earns in preparing for this expedition, but that is not all. “I was the first to put my name to this expedition, a name that I have built up over the last seven years. When you announce that you are embarking on an expedition like this you immediately take on a huge responsibility. It so happens that a group of people have become enthusiastic about the idea for this project and they work for us and help us virtually for free,” says Semyonov.  
"We are looking to spend time in unique locations that nobody has ever dived before"

Time management

The Aquatilis expedition is due to take three years. Half the time will be spent on sailing between sites, diving, research, giving public lectures, and so on. “We are not looking to win a race,” says Semyonov. “We are looking to spend time in unique locations that nobody has ever dived before.”

Despite the fact that the yacht is designed for 16 people, no more than 10 will be onboard at any one time. This is primarily because the scientists are planning to take a great deal of equipment with them (a single deep-sea robot can take up two bunk beds) and also to ensure the rotation of personnel. “Even experienced sailors can go crazy onboard a ship, because you can’t be at sea without a break,” says Semyonov.

The expedition should result in a series of scientific publications and even books on the gelatinous plankton found in the depths of the oceans. It is also planned to set up a unique wiki portal devoted to plankton, which will offer users all the necessary information, including videos, photos and coordinates, along with the temperature and salinity of the water.

However, Aquatilis will not neglect the media: A series of educational videos about the ocean, a video blog of the expedition, and a full-length feature film are planned, and dozens of lectures are to be given around the world.

“You have to actively present scientific ideas, to package them in the right way, and they will then be accepted by the general public. We hope that a great number of people around the world will be inspired by our expedition,” says Semyonov. Looking through the spellbinding photographs he has already taken of some of the brightest specimens of gelatinous plankton, one cannot fail to agree with him.

back to top 
You can support Team Aquatilis at their Indiegogo page
Produced by Russia Beyond the Headlines in 2014

Photography by Alexander Semyonov, Val Darkin, Andrey Shpatak