Glowing Turtle Discovery
Expedition, 2015
Solomon Islands


TBA21–Academy expedition films first-ever seen bio-fluorescent reptile
During the full-moon evening of July 31, 2015, near Nugu Island in the Solomon Islands, Markus Reymann and I set out on an inflatable raft into the night.  It was the fleeting moment of crepuscular post-sunset transitioning into inky darkness and our eyes began adjusting to the full moon. The silhouetted shadows of tangled mangrove trees danced on the reflection off the sea.  It was the third day of a TBA21–Academy expedition and my custom-designed biofluorescent seeking blue lights, that shine the exact blue spectrum of light of the blue seas, had just been miraculously repaired by an engineer abroad the expedition vessel Dardanella. They had been damaged during the two day journey from New York City to Honiara, where I met Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza, TBA21 Founder, and Markus, TBA21–Academy Director, to begin our expedition.  My heart had sunken the past few days, feeling the biofluorescent searching part of the expedition would have to be abandoned.  And yet, the broadly set goal was to seek out small wobbegongs sharks at night that I had evidence might emit an eerie, green glow.
When Markus and I reached the dive site, we proceeded with caution keeping our eyes agaze for the reflective crocodile eyes.  A tribal chief had notified us of a series of recent crocodile encounters and that nighttime swims were not a common practice. But, at a depth of 20 meters, we relaxed into the kaleidoscope display of coral biofluorescence, a phenomenom examined mainly by a small cadre of scientists, and of which my research team had deciphered the genomic code of scores of fluorescent proteins. These light-transforming proteins provide tools to researchers, allowing for a portal onto any gene and witness events such as the cellular communication and neuronal firing.
About 20 minutes into the dive, while focusing my camera on a burgeoning outcrop of corals, Markus and I came head-to-head with a bright green and red biofluorescent turtle –an ancient, vesseling light.  I stared at the “glowing” sea turtle in disbelief and she stared back before venturing down an adjacent coral wall.  I have spent hundreds of hours underwater at night and had seen nothing in comparison to this divulgence.
There is growing evidence that biofluorescence can function as a secret mode of communication, shared by the increasing number of animals we are finding to possess biofluorescence.  And now we have a foundation to pose questions probing deeper into what it means for a hawksbill turtle to churn color from the deep blue.
Although the Solomon Islands possess the largest rookery for hawksbill sea turtles in the oceanic South Pacific, globally hawksbill turtles are critically endangered and remains under threat from climate change, loss of nesting habitats, illegal trade, by-catch, and legal subsistence take. The novel observation of biofluorescence in the hawksbill highlights the urgency to understand and better protect and manage this mysterious and endangered species.  Having encountered this “glowing” turtle, having been discovered by its graceful play in the sea will hopefully offer new chapters of inspiration for explorers to come. 
David Gruber
Paris, France
December 17, 2015

"Glowing Hawksbill Sea Turtle Discovers Explorers Searching for Marine Biofluorescence on TBA21–Academy Expedition"

In collaboration with National Geographic, the TBA21–Academy team discovered glowing red and green biofluorescent shells in Hawksbill turtles — a critically endangered species — during an expedition to the Solomon Islands in August 2015. 

While it is known that Hawksbill shells change color depending on water temperature, the biofluorescent capacities of the marine reptile have never been recorded until now. Marine biologist David Gruber was diving with TBA21 Academy Director Markus Reymann when they noticed a "bright red-and-green spaceship" approaching them in the water during a night dive. Totally unpredicted, the discovery happened when the turtle swam into the camera's view. The pair were diving with a special blue light that acts as a fluorescent excitor with many organisms, transforming the undersea at night into a seemingly psychedelic underworld.

Marine biologist, ocean explorer and professor David Gruber's discoveries are providing a wealth of new insights into a secret ‘language’ of shining colors and patterns that help many marine creatures communicate, interact and avoid enemies. He and his collaborators have illuminated and discovered novel fluorescent molecules from over 200 marine animals and are searching for connections between glowing sea life and the ability to visualize the inner workings of human cells. For instance, his research group at City University of New York and the American Museum of Natural History has deciphered the genomic code of scores of new fluorescent proteins, which are now being developed as tools to aid medical research and illuminate biological processes.

Gruber – a National Geographic Emerging Explorer – was on site as part of a TBA21 Academy expedition, an art initiative that enlists artists, curators, and scientists to work together on environmental projects. Placing people directly on the ground and freeing some of the world’s top minds from the strictures of the conference hall, studio or laboratory, the Academy aims to inspire new approaches and thinking and to refocus attention on the urgent ecological situation of today: especially within in our oceans. By allowing science and art to merge, to explore and discover through each other, ground-breaking new discoveries can be made, interpreted and communicated to the world at large.

“We learned so much about the oceans from diving with one of the world’s formost marine biologists, especially what happens at night! Scientists are still learning about the function and evolutionary nature of organisms that fluoresce, so being able to participate in this breakthrough, and helping to catalog a new organism that can generate the proteins that fluoresce is extremely exciting. Tonight we documented a fluorescent decorator crab, so our quest continues!”

–Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza, Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary Founder

“Seeing that our discovery of the biofluorescent turtle made it into the online publications of Time, CNN, Huffington Post, Greenpeace, but also artnet and others gives me great confidence that our Triennium program The Current that brings together artists, scientists and other cultural producers to redefine the culture of exploration can have a real viable impact. Our program aims to inspire change through knowledge production and dissemination that defies traditional categorization. Besides that, sharing this discovery with David Gruber was one of the most exciting moments in my life.”

–Markus Reymann, TBA21 Academy Director 

In December 2015 during COP21 – the 21st United Nations Convention on Climate Change – in Paris, TBA21 Founder Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza and Academy Director Markus Reymann announced a new program called The Current, intended as the exploratory soul of TBA21.