story by Blair Roberts
photos by Dana Edmunds
Under the microscope, Ardeanema seriospora tetrasporic resembles a monster’s six-fingered claw, a menacing purple pincer. Ceramium borneense looks like the artwork of an alien intelligence, reminiscent of Picasso’s cubist period. Antithamnionella breviramosa? Clearly of this planet; it looks like a sapling draped with the first snow of winter.
Does Jack Fisher, the man who preserved these specimens and many others, have a favorite?
“Not really,” says Fisher, botany collections technician at Bishop Museum in Honolulu. “They’re all individually interesting.” Fisher pauses, then continues in his British-inflected accent: “Some I detest.”
“It really depends on the size of the sheet I have to put it on,” he explains. “Some specimens have a little piece of seaweed stuck on a sheet 16 inches by 9 inches; it’s just ridiculous. There must be a better way of doing things.”
There isn’t, and there is no one better at it than Fisher, who at 79 is the world’s master slide-maker of marine algae, a.k.a. seaweed. Bishop Museum has 75,000 specimens of seaweed squished between slides, mounted on sheets of paper, pickled in jars of water—the largest collection of Pacific marine algae in the world. While some algae, like kelp, can grow to hundreds of feet, most of the ocean’s algal biomass—as much as 95 percent—is microscopic. It takes someone with a steady hand, a patient eye and a good sense of humor to clean and mount these tiny plants. The results are not only useful to science, they’re glimpses of nature’s fine and delicate artistry.
Fisher, who has handled Bishop Museum’s algae collection since 1992 (he pronounces algae with a hard “g,” like AL-ghee—“That’s the way it’s spelled, isn’t it?” he explains), takes samples delivered to the museum from Pacific waters and reduces them in size and form for scientific study. The tools of his trade are simple: forceps with sharp, needle-like prongs and soft brushes with tiny hair tips. The trick is to position the specimen under the microscope and remove any epiphytes—plants that grow on other plants—as well as dirt and other sediment. The specimens are then treated with aniline blue or a crystal violet stain so they won’t fade. The work is time-consuming, painstaking and lonely, but it’s work Fisher enjoys. “It is quite interesting and relaxing to a certain extent, but there are also with that 3,000 things that can go wrong. … I get frustrated when I can’t clean the specimen properly, and then I feel like I want to throw it across the room. But then I have a cup of coffee and try again.
“But I take some pride in getting it just right,” he says. “And I get paid to do this, which is nice.”