Knowledge: History of Underwater Fluorescence Observation and Photography

Fluorescence Observation

The first printed record we have found of an observation of fluorescence of a marine organism dates to 1927. A Mr. C. E. S. Phillips was walking along the shore in Torbay, England, and noticed that the anemones in a tidepool seemed to be an especially bright green. He collected several specimens and used a light with a Wood’s glass filter (a filter that absorbs visible light and transmits ultraviolet) to confirm that it fluoresced under ultraviolet light. Phillips suggested that marine biologists add such a light to their repertoire of research equipment, but not much seems to have come of his idea. (Phillips, C. E. S., 1927. Fluorescence of sea anemones. Nature, 119: 747.)

We now move to the South Pacific in the 1930’s. Siro Kawaguti, a Japanese marine biologist working at the Palao Tropical Biological Station, was studying the pigments of corals. He noted that the most common pigment was a fluorescent green. Kawaguti carried out a number of manipulative experiments on the pigments, and authored several scientific papers on the topic. (Kawaguti, S., 1944. On the physiology of reef corals VI. Study on the pigments. Palao Trop. Biol. Stn. Stud., 2: 617-674.)

SCUBA divers rediscovered fluorescence in the 1950’s. Luis Marden, a photographer for National Geographic magazine, wrote in 1956 that he noticed red anemones at a depth of 60 feet, where there should have been no red. The red color disappeared in flash photographs, and Marden correctly concluded that the effect was due to fluorescence. (Marden, L., 1956. Camera Under the Sea. National Geographic, 109: 162-200.) Conrad Limbaugh and Wheeler North, working at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, investigated several brightly colored anemones in the waters of the west coast and determined that they were fluorescent. (Limbaugh, C., and W. J. North, 1956. Fluorescent, benthic, Pacific Coast coelenterates. Nature, 178: 497-8.)

The biggest impetus to the early study of fluorescence, though, was the work of Rene Catala, Director of the Noumea Aquarium in New Caledonia. Catala was the first person to systematically look for fluorescence in corals. Divers collected specimens during the day and he examined them under ultraviolet light in the Aquarium at night. Catala became enthusiastic about fluorescence and established a Hall of Fluorescent Corals in the Aquarium. In 1959 he shipped fluorescent corals to Europe and mounted an exhibition in Antwerp, Belgium. Aquarium displays of fluorescing corals have been a curiosity ever since. (Catala, R., 1959. Fluorescence effects from corals irradiated with ultra-violet rays. Nature, 183: 949.) (Catala, R, 1964. Carnival Under the Sea. R. Sicard, Paris. 141 pp.)

Possibly the first person to take ultraviolet lights into the sea was Richard Woodbridge III. Not the warm waters of the Caribbean for him – Woodbridge built his own underwater ultraviolet lights and tested them in the chilly waters of Maine. He wrote articles for Skin Diver magazine in 1959 and 1961, and also published in the scientific literature. (Woodbridge, R. G. III, 1959. Night diving with ultraviolet lights. Skin Diver, August: 22-23; Woodbridge, R. G. III, 1961. We dive at night. Skin Diver, February: 43; Woodbridge, R. G. III., 1959. Application of ultra-violet lights to underwater research. Nature, 184: 259. ) Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau mentions the use of ultraviolet light underwater in The Silent World, but the time when he used it is uncertain. Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, an avid underwater explorer, obtained lights from Dick Woodbridge and included a passage about a fluorescence night dive in his 1963 book Dolphin Island.

More recently, NIGHTSEA founder Charlie Mazel began building underwater ultraviolet lights in the mid-70’s. His work started as a hobby and then led to a PhD in Marine Biology and a research career.

Fluorescence Photography

Apparently the first person to take fluorescence photographs of corals was Rene Catala (mentioned above), Director of the Noumea Aquarium in New Caledonia. Catala was an avid and excellent photographer, and he made wonderful photographs of many of the specimens in his aquarium. All of his fluorescence photographs were time exposures made in aquarium tanks on the surface.

Catala’s work inspired Paul Zahl of National Geographic magazine. As did Catala, Zahl collected specimens and photographed them on the surface. The article Fluorescent Gems from Davy Jones’s Locker appeared in the magazine in August 1963. (Zahl, P. A., 1963. Fluorescent gems from Davy Jones’s locker. National Geographic, August, 124: 260-271.)

Dr. Walter Starck may have been the first to take fluorescence photographs underwater, using custom-made ultraviolet lights some time in the 1960’s.

Charlie Mazel began experimenting with underwater fluorescence photography in the mid-70’s. Instead of a steady light source, which required time exposures, he used a modified electronic flash as the source of ultraviolet light. Combined with the compact underwater ultraviolet lights he had developed, this provided the mobility to find and photograph specimens wherever they happened to be, at any depth. Mazel’s photographs from Roatan (Honduras), Pedro Bank (Jamaica), the Florida Keys, and New England were published in Sea Frontiers in 1988 and Ocean Realm in 1991, and have been exhibited at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Mazel, C., 1988. Underwater fluorescence. Sea Frontiers, 34: 274-279; Mazel, C., 1991. Black night, black light: underwater fluorescence. Ocean Realm, summer: 63-68.)

David Doubilet, underwater photographer extraordinaire, published an article with excellent fluorescence photographs of corals in National Geographic magazine in 1997. Doubilet used a high-powered underwater light that required surface power, so he worked off the pier in Eilat, Israel, and photographed specimens that had been collected from various depths and assembled for his camera. (Doubilet, D., 1997. A new light in the sea. National Geographic, August, 192: 32-43.)


The above is just a brief survey of the early work in underwater fluorescence. Lots more has been done since, described both in popular publications and in the scientific literature. For more information check the list of publications.