The encyclopaedists of the oceans

The unknown abysses of the deep seas are the last great exploration challenge on our living planet, and are the focus of a worldwide scientific initiative known as CoML (Census of Marine Life). Studying the famous mid-Atlantic ridge, the researchers of the Mar-Eco (Mid-Atlantic Ridge Ecosystems) project, who are involved in this programme, have sought, from the very beginning, to revive the spirit of the great naturalists of the past. They are offering, through the latest media technologies, encyclopaedic film documentaries illustrating their discoveries, which are accessible to all. This "text book example", in which knowledge sharing goes hand-in-hand with knowledge acquisition, won them the 2006 Descartes Prize for scientific communication.

Travelling exhibition organised by Mar-Eco here at the Aquagallery in Krageroe (Norway) Travelling exhibition organised by Mar-Eco here at the Aquagallery in Krageroe (Norway)
© MAR-ECO/Erik Schultze

Run by Norway and bringing together 16 countries (mostly European) from three continents, the Mar-Eco project studies animal life along the mid-Atlantic ridge, the famous mountainous underwater frontier from which the Azores and Iceland were formed. After 13 expeditions, the project has collected tens of thousands of specimens and made several discoveries: strange tracks on the ocean bed, formerly unknown species of sponges, cephalopods and fish, as well as new data on the behaviour of animals, from plankton to whales.

Knowledge in real time

The Mar-Eco researchers are unique: they are sharing their knowledge in real time. Since the beginning, they have made the popularisation of science part of their research process. By involving journalists, schools, artists and the public at large, and making innovative use of various media techniques, they are offering a veritable encyclopaedic introduction to discoveries coming from the wonderfully rich oceans. ‘I'm proud to lead a project in which researchers are committed to communication and feel comfortable with it,’ says Odd Aksel Bergstad from the lnstitute of Marine Research (IMR- NO), and coordinator of Mar-Eco. ‘Our strategy, which combines science, technology and the fine arts, is a real success. Collaboration with the Norwegian painter Ørnulf Opdahl has, for example, awakened interest in our work among many people who were otherwise indifferent to biology or oceanography.’ On the Mar-Eco Internet site, there are some 40 interesting educational articles. The backgrounders (short articles about a topic) provide examples of the scientific dissemination work carried out in all disciplines touched by the project (oceanography, biology, geology, chemistry, physics, technologies). The site also offers virtual scientific cruises by means of the expedition logbook, and some 40 films and innumerable photos. In order to involve schools, the scientists have set up a worldwide network that currently comprises 17 institutions. They have invited teachers and students out into the "field", and have connected schools and ships by videoconference. They have led educational projects not only on the exact sciences, but also - and this is one of their ongoing intentions – in technology, human sciences and the visual arts. Having already held some 10 exhibitions, this enormous communications effort has attracted media coverage in 32 countries and 14 languages.

The variety, extent and quality of this initiative won Mar-Eco the 2006 Descartes Prize for scientific communication awarded by the Union. ‘To be questioned by the media and the public is a challenge that obliges specialists to look at their scientific contribution within a larger context,’ concludes Odd Aksel Bergstad. ‘Some researchers suddenly discovered the astonishing popularity of their disciplines, which is very mobilising.’