Slow-Motion Science and the Art of Capturing Marine Life

New MIT exhibit features high-speed underwater photography by former aquanaut Grace Young (SB ’14)

Grace Young ’14 had been scuba diving in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary for more than three hours when the weight of her gear began taking its toll. Young was resting her head on the ocean floor — her legs floating upwards toward the surface, swaying in the current like seaweed — when she spotted a mantis shrimp moving in the sand. With the help of another diver, Young set up a specialized high-speed underwater camera to capture the quick-moving creature on film. The resulting three seconds of slow-motion footage reveal how the shrimp’s sand-colored eyes move to focus on its prey. Still images of this close encounter, as well as video and images of other sea life, are now on display at the Wiesner Student Art Gallery — part of the new exhibit "Undersea Phenomena in Ultra Slow Motion."

The exhibit is a culmination of Young’s time as an aquanaut for Fabien Cousteau's Mission 31, which sought to raise awareness of climate change, ocean pollution, resource overconsumption, and coral reef health while also conducting deep-sea research and high-speed videography in an underwater marine laboratory. For 15 days in June 2014, Young lived 63 feet below the ocean surface, assisting with multiple research projects and leading the use of the high-speed Edgertronic camera to image over three dozen species including feeding mantis shrimp, predatory corals, grouper, cuttlefish, and jawfish, to name a few. “We thought the videos would be scientifically interesting for marine biologists — showing the dynamics of each creature’s movements — but they’re also artistically appealing,” said Young.

While living underwater, Young thought of creating an exhibit of the footage once she was back on land. But bringing this idea to fruition was no small feat. She created a Kickstarter campaign raising over $3,000 to defray costs, and sorted through approximately 300,000 still images taken from only 2.5 minutes of film.

More than 130 people attended the show opening last Friday night. The crowd was a mix of Young’s friends, family, and mentors, as well as members of the MIT and greater Boston communities. “I heard about Grace’s adventures and I’ve been following her blog ever since,” said John Currier, an MIT philanthropic adviser. “I’m excited to see her photos.” Dozens of people lined up along the walls examining series of still images, while others crowded around two screens playing Young’s video diary and footage captured by the Edgertronic camera.

Young circulated around the room chatting with visitors young and old about her experience. A little girl in a gray sweater and floral skirt ran up to her, asking about a school of anchovies Young saw during her adventure. The girl’s father, Richard Amster ’82, brought his family specifically to meet Young. “Here is an intelligent self-actualized woman in science doing innovative research,” Amster said. “She is a great role model for both of my children, but especially my daughter.”

Young had another particularly memorable interaction with a local high school student. “She was thinking about studying marine biology in college, but she wasn’t sure,” Young said. “She told me that after seeing our work she decided that’s what she’s going to do, which is really great.”

Young hopes visitors will come away from the exhibit with an appreciation for not only the beauty, but also the mystery of the ocean. “There’s so much left to discover,” she said. "Undersea Phenomena in Ultra Slow Motion" is on display through Jan. 31.