There is something endearing about small things. Passing by a shop window with items for a dollhouse, I thought that even a tiny can of beans or a tiny pillow for a bed is enchanting. Perhaps that’s why I was so taken with a display of photographs of tiny marine organisms that is tucked away in a long hallway at the Portland Jetport. It has been there for a while and, in fact, I believe the exhibit opened in 2016 and has traveled from location to location, including the Portland Public Library, then finding a home in the hallway to the left of the bottom of the escalator in the departure gate area, where I have seen it now several times.

The exhibit, “Tiny Giants: Marine Microbes Revealed on a Giant Scale,” is a series of large-scale photographs taken using three different microscopes by scientists from both the Bigelow Lab and the New England Aquarium. The series of a dozen or so black-and-white images feature an assortment of marine microbes, including descriptions about their unique capabilities and adaptations. Microbes are the tiny plants and animals that live in water — hundreds of thousands of them in just one tablespoon. They are just one cell but are some of the scrappiest, most diverse forms of life on the planet. They’ve also been around for longer than almost any other type of living organisms.

One of the most common types of microbes are diatoms. These are of the plant variety, which makes them phytoplankton and means that they are capable of photosynthesizing. They’re so good at it that they produce about half of the oxygen in the ocean. Scientists are looking at the plates on their exterior surface of diatoms as models to design more efficient solar panels. Some of the phytoplankton varieties pictured are responsible for kicking off Maine’s spring plankton bloom where an abundance of these tiny microbes provide an influx of oxygen to ocean creatures emerging from a less active winter growing season.

Not all microbes are plants, however. Others are tiny animals, or zooplankton. Some of these can also photosynthesize, but others need to get their nutrients from the ocean water. Regardless of whether they are phyto or zoo, plankton form the basis of the marine food chain and provide food for everything from small fish to giant filter-feeding whales. Given their critical role, one of the issues that the exhibit calls attention to are the environmental threats to these microbes. Many of them have tiny shells made out of calcium carbonate, the same compound found in the shells of myriad other marine organisms. Changes in the ocean’s chemistry known as ocean acidification have resulted in less available calcium for these organisms to build their shells, which thereby threatens their survival.

Their shapes and sizes are whimsical and surreal, from tiny little snail-like creatures to long chains of diatoms that cling to each other like a string of beads. While this exhibit focuses on the smaller varieties of plankton in the ocean, there are some giant forms out there as well. They don’t qualify as microbes, but it is fascinating to know that jellyfish, some of which grow as large as 100 feet across, are also plankton. The similarity between them and a tiny diatom is that they are both “drifters,” the meaning of “plankton” in Greek. They can’t swim on their own but instead have to drift where the ocean takes them.

While captivated by this exhibit in this particular situation, while passing time at the airport waiting for a flight, marine microbes are often overlooked because we can’t see them with the naked eye. So, in addition to browsing the shops of the terminal and getting a pre-flight snack, take a few moments to duck down a quiet hallway to see these stunning photographs. You won’t look at a tablespoon of seawater the same way.

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