ROSEBUD WHALE FALL
Oil painting on canvas on panel, 27 x 40”, 2021
Painted for Greg Rouse, Professor in the Marine Biology Research Division and Curator of Benthic Invertebrate Collection at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego. Greg Rouse has discovered and named more than 80 species of animals.
“ROSEBUD”was a 60 foot, 23 ton female Fin whale Balaenoptera physalus which, after washing up killed with a broken back (shown) because of a ship strike off the coast of La Jolla CA, was then dragged to deeper waters by Greg Rouse and his colleagues and sunk for the purpose of study at a depth of 2765 feet (843 meters). To make the carcass sink, it took 7 tons of rusty chains and shackles attached to the tail (shown).
The first modern whale fall was observed only in 1977 by a US Navy bathyscaphe, Trieste II. With the advent of robotic deep ocean exploration (ROVs) it is possible to observe many previously undiscovered species living in the unique ecosystem created by the fallen giant: the whale fall. Some are creatures which live only at whale falls. It is estimated that at any given time there are hundreds of thousands of whale falls throughout the world, but at depths which have made them difficult to reach and observe.
Some of the newly discovered whale fall species are depicted on this painting ROSEBUD WHALE FALL. Some, like Ampharetid tube worms and several new species of scaleworm—some iridescent!— live on the bacterial mat which forms around the skeleton as it decomposes. The mat is represented here as a white halo around the skeleton, and the species which live on the mat are shown connected on the painting by purple-gray lines.
The species which live primarily on the bone of the skeleton are depicted with similar cobalt blue lines. One such new species is Osedax roseus which lives on the bones of the giant whale and dissolves them using acid. Osedax (Latin for “bone-devourer”), a foundation species of the deep sea, evolved before the time of whales to decompose dinosaur bones: “They may have survived in seeps, wood-falls, and hydrothermal vents while waiting out the 20 million year gap between the reptiles’ extinction and the whales’ emergence.” Think of it, waiting for 20 million years!
The painting also features five vignettes, each of which shows a different small focus grouping of species of note, again related to either bone or mat.
It may take a half century or more before all traces of ROSEBUD vanish from the sea floor.
The many horizontal bands in the painting’s background refer to the water column of the open ocean. I was privileged to observe the water column while watching ROV SuBastion descend in the Pacific Ocean while aboard R/V Falkor last summer (2021.) SuBastian did seem to descend through many layers of color and transparency/opacity on the long way down to the ocean floor. (For a dive to 2700 meters (8866 ft.) it took SuBastion a hour and a half in seeming free-fall to reach bottom.) Each layer contains distinct colors and creatures…so beautiful and otherworldly…Ctenophores like miniature solar systems and pyrosomes like snowfall!
The further point of the painting is the interconnectedness of all the elements. Every part is essential to the life of the ocean ecosystem in ways that with new technologies such as DNA testing scientists are only beginning to understand. The bands connecting the species—purple-gray for mat and cobalt blue for bone—also mean that everything in the ocean is connected and interdependent. The ocean contains as yet unexplored benefits to humankind, for antibiotics or managing climate change. For example, microbes which live in the deep ocean gobble up methane, a greenhouse gas. Other deep ocean microbes have been recently discovered to have cancer-fighting properties. The whale fall itself embodies the potentialities and enigmas of oceanographic exploration: a majestic fallen giant which appears as a cathedral of bone to the approaching ROV, which sustains and supports innumerable ancient and evolving species with as yet unknown characteristics.
The ocean is impressively vast—but not inexhaustible. With this painting and others I hope to inspire people with its beauty and mystery, so that they will want to protect it.
REPRESENTED SPECIES: ABOVE THE SKELETON (from left):
- Bathykurila lucibohnorum (± 1 cm.) Polychaete. Iridescent.
- Vignette: Ophryotrocha tilici (Polychaete or “bristle-worm” (± 1 cm.) found in ROSEBUD’S eye socket, and as yet unnamed small red scaleworm at top, feeding on whale bone. The small red as-yet-unnamed scaleworms are also depicted on the mat halo all around the whale’s skeleton .
- Siphonophore Praya dubia (phylum Cnidaria) The longest animal in the ocean, Siphonophore has been recently measured at 150 feet or more, longer than a Blue Whale. It looks like one gigantic animal, but it is actually a colonial organism made up of thousands of genetically identical clones called “zooids.” Each zooid has its own specialized function for the survival of the colony: some sting prey, some navigate and others reproduce. Most zooids are so specialized they cannot survive on their own. Siphonophore lives in the pelagic zone, the water column of the open ocean.
- Hyalogyrina (3-4mm in length.) A newly discovered species of sea snail, pearly with a bright yellow stripe. Lives on the mat next to the bone. Also shown in the vignette of the Ampharetidae (tube-worms.)
- White Galatheid Crab Munidopsis quadrata (5 cm in length). Lives in the mud and mat around the bone of the whale fall.
- Vignette: Ampharetidae and Parastichopus. Ampharetidae Glyphanostomum sp. (emerging tube worm) with baby White Galatheid Crabs called out in detail at top. Vignette: Ampharetid Tube worms (a polychaete which inhabits the deep ocean) shown in bacterial mat and sediment with Hyalogyrina snails and baby Parastichopus (orange sea cucumber). Parastichopus (2 feet in length) is called out at right of vignette (also shown in the mat at the bottom of the whale skeleton in the correct scale relative to the whale skeleton.) Parastichopus is a scavenger which feeds on organic matter by sifting through the ocean floor sediment.
- Hagfish (2-3 feet.) A scavenger fish which strips the flesh from the whale skeleton. It has a skull made of cartilage, but no vertebral column.
- Vignette and Pannychia (Purple Sea Cucumber). The vignette shows a detail of the skin of the Pannychia (2 feet long), which has its own iridescent scaleworm genus mallicacephala living on it. The golden spheres surrounding the scaleworm in the vignette are the retracted purple tube feet of the Pannychia. The Pannychia is called out at right. You can see the little worm living on the host sea cucumber Pannychia.
- Two Dover Soles Microstomus pacificus (near skeleton living in the mat.)
- Glass Sponge Porifera hyalonema and anemone living on glass spicule (sponge stalk, 4 feet tall.) “Porifera” means “Pore-bearer.” The sponge is a detritivore which eats organic debris particles and microscopic life forms which it filters out of ocean water. The spicule is made of a double helix of glass strands. It is not yet known how the sponge forms the glass. The anemone has colonized on the spicule—advantageous because it is higher in the current and can reach more food.
REPRESENTED SPECIES: BELOW THE SKELETON (from left):
- Two Sea Anemones Cnidaria anthozoa actiniaria liponematidae brevicornis living on a dead Glass Sponge stalk. Sea Anemone is a predatory invertebrate animal, related to coral, jellyfish and hydra. It is thought that some Glass Sponges living on the seabed were killed at the time ROSEBUD was sunk in 2011. The stalk or spicule remained (made of glass and thus not alive). These anemones are using the glass stalk to get off the ocean floor to a higher position where they can get more food in the current. Writing in the New Yorker magazine about his visit to the ROSEBUD whale fall in 2014, geobiologist Jeffrey Marlowe described: “Fluffy pink anemones swayed at the peaks (of ROSEBUD’S tall vertebrae) presaging the whale’s future as a reef—a place where animals and corals can bathe in the currents, catching food as it drifts through.”
- Neogyptis pennyae (Hesionidae; ± 1 cm), a newly discovered carnivorous bristle worm which feeds on bone. Most Hesionidae are found on the continental shelf.
- Vignette: Osedax roseus (Latin “Bone-devourer”) lives exclusively on whale falls, feeding off the fats within the pictured bone matrix. This species evolved before the advent of whales, originally decomposing the bones of dinosaurs. In the interval between the extinction of dinosaurs and the appearance of whales—20 million years of evolution— Osedax waited, surviving in methane seeps, hydrothermal vents or wood-falls. WOW. At the right, an individual female Osedax (1 cm wide and 10 cm long ) is called out. She has a “harem” of up to 114 males (100,000 times smaller) living in her trunk. She spawns eggs continually (shown) and dissolves the bone with acid which she secretes. There is one Osedax which has an independent male, O. priapus (not on ROSEBUD). Priapus is the Greek protector god of livestock, gardens and male genitalia. Osedax is a foundation species of the deep sea.
- Vignette: Peinaleopolynoe santacatalina (2 cm long) with Osedax roseus and the as-yet-unnamed small red scaleworm, living on the decomposing whale bone. The newly discovered beautiful Peinaleopolynoe santacatalina, Shiny Scaleworm, is iridescent. It is called out on the right of the vignette.
- Blacktail Snailfish Careproctus melanurus (54 cm length.)
- Micospina auribohnorum, (Chrysopetalidae, Annelida; ± 1 cm) New genus, new species.
- Scarlett King Crab Lithodes couesi (2 feet across including legs) walks on the seafloor and feeds on other crabs, dead animals and sea stars. It is found to 2400 feet.