‘Planktonium’ is a Photo Series About the Microscopic World of Plankton

Photographer and filmmaker Jan van IJken’s photo series and film peers into the unseen world of one of the most important lifeforms on Earth: plankton.

Titled “Planktonium,” van IJken says that the goal was to take the viewer on a voyage into what he describes as a “secret universe” that is inhabited by alien-like creatures.

Two waterfleas carrying eggs
Waterfleas carrying eggs | Photo © Jan van IJken

Plankton is a term that describes a fast number of microscopic creatures. In the ocean, plankton are considered one of the foundational creatures that provide a crucial source of food for many large and small aquatic animals. Scientists have classified about 5,000 known species of marine plankton alone. Plankton are divided into two main types: phytoplankton and zooplankton.

Phytoplankton (small plant-like cells) are responsible for the production of half of all oxygen on earth through their process of photosynthesis — like plants and trees do on land. Zooplankton form the base of the food chain of aquatic life. Plankton also play a vitally important part in the global carbon cycle, as it is plankton — not trees — that are responsible for most of the transfer of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Jan van IJken using his plankton net
Jan van IJken at work with his plankton net.

According to NASA, plankton are responsible for transferring 10 gigatonnes of carbon from the atmosphere to the deep ocean each year. Even small changes in the growth of phytoplankton may affect atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, which would feed back to global surface temperatures. And just as is the case with many life forms on Earth, these vitally important plankton are threatened by climate change, global warming, and acidification of the oceans.

“These stunningly beautiful, very diverse, and numerous organisms are unknown to most of us because they are invisible to the naked eye,” van IJken says. “However, they are wandering beneath the surface of all waters around us and they are of vital importance for all life on Earth.”

A white Echinoderm larva
Echinoderm larva | Photo © Jan van IJken
Gloeotrichia - Cyanobacteria, a yellow, spiked planton
Gloeotrichia – Cyanobacteria | Photo © Jan van IJken

The series was captured by photographing the creatures through a microscope, which reveals the beauty and delicate structures of the tiny creatures in extreme detail.

Jan van IJken using a microscope to photograph plankton
Jan van IJken at work on location with his microscope.

The film above was filmed, directed, and produced by van IJken with generous financial support from the Gemeente Leiden and Stichting Oog op de Natuur (Editing by Jan van IJken and Metje Postma). The film is without voice-over intentionally and is scored by renowned Norwegian artist Jana Winderen. The sounds are recorded in audio environments from deep underwater or inside of ice and includes frequency ranges that are generally inaudible to the human ear.

More plankton photos, as well as more of Jan van IJken’s work, can be seen on his website.

Image credits: All photos by Jan van IJken and published with permission.