Octopus. Credit: Xindi Chang
Octopus. Credit: Xindi Chang

In the early 2000s, the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary offshore of Massachusetts held its first art contest. Cosponsored by the Massachusetts Marine Educators, the competition challenged students in grades K through 12 to draw sea life that can be found in the sanctuary and mail in their submissions.

The artwork invites viewers to tour the sanctuary through canvas, pencil, ink, and paint.

The contest, which runs from fall until late April, started off as a local affair but now receives entries from around the world. Last school year, students submitted more than 750 entries; winners get a small cash prize and passes to museums. Their art also becomes part of a traveling exhibit to national parks, nature centers, and other community spaces across the country.

The sanctuary, located at the mouth of the Massachusetts Bay, is home to many types of fish, whales, and migratory birds. Contest rules provide students with a detailed list of native species.

Eos can’t get enough of this art-science fusion, which gives us a window into a teeming undersea world. From scientific illustrations to impressionistic imaginings, from detailed landscapes to lifelike portraits, the artwork invites viewers to tour the sanctuary through canvas, pencil, ink, and paint. There’s even a division for photography and computer-generated art.

We selected just a few of the many entries from the last few years and include them below. Immerse yourself in these lifelike works of art and learn a few facts about the creatures that inspired them.

Just Krilling Time

Krill and Beroe’s Comb Jelly. Credit: Linda Palominos
Krill and Beroe’s Comb Jelly. First place in the 2018 High School Division. Credit: Linda Palominos, Grade 12, Rio Hondo High School, Rio Hondo, Texas

In this piece, a krill (left) and a comb jelly of the species Beroe cucumis (right) float side by side, illuminated in rainbow colors. Comb jellies have no bones or shell and consist of 95% water, but don’t underestimate them—their stomachs can expand to half their size, and they like to eat other comb jellies for breakfast (and lunch and dinner).

Krills, on the other hand, are shrimp-like crustaceans that stand at the bottom of much of the ocean’s food chain. You can spot these two floating through Stellwagen’s waters, and when the light is right, the hairlike plates along the comb jelly can make flickering rays of rainbows.

Charismatic Megamama

Humpback Whales. Credit: Aayan Patel
Humpback Whales. Third place in the 2018 High School Division. Credit: Aayan Patel, Grade 9, Davidson Academy of Nevada, Reno

We love a good charismatic megafauna, especially when they come in twos. Humpback whales, like the mother and calf in this painting, often stay side by side for the first year of the calf’s life. A mother can even be seen frequently touching her flipper to her offspring in affection, like in this painting.

Calves eventually go their own way, setting out to find small pods of other whales to wander the ocean beside. Dozens of female humpbacks visit Stellwagen each year, many of which bring a calf in tow.

Doesn’t Look So Common to Us!

Common Loon. Credit: Michela G.
Common Loon. First place in the 2018 Middle School Division. Credit: Michela G., Grade 8, Marshall Simonds Middle School, Burlington, Mass.

Don’t let the name fool you: The common loon looks anything but common. During breeding season, these seagoing birds don a formal white-and-black checkered pattern and white “necklace” around the throat.

Lion’s Mane Jellyfish. Credit: Lili Barba
Lion’s Mane Jellyfish. Sixth place in the 2016 High School Division. Credit: Lili Barba, Grade 11, Swampscott High School, Swampscott, Mass.

Loons made a Hollywood cameo in Pixar’s Finding Dory and can be seen peppering the skies over Stellwagen in the winter.

Do You Think They Can Roar?

The majestic lion’s mane jelly is the largest known species of jellyfish on Earth, reaching 2.4 meters in diameter. With flowing tentacles like a lion’s mane, the limbs have been known to stretch more than 36 meters, making this jellyfish one of the longest known animals in the world.

Lion’s mane jellies commonly float through the waters of Stellwagen, and despite their beauty, swimmers beware: These jellies are toxic and can be deadly for humans.

Gives a Whole New Meaning to Pearly Whites

Mako Shark. Credit: Logan Dibble
Mako Shark. First place in the 2017 High School Division. Credit: Logan Dibble, Grade 11, Nauset Regional High School, Eastham, Mass.

Sharp noses, long slender teeth, and a crescent-shaped tail—these mako sharks get your attention. In this piece, the mako shark opens wide to show off its rows of teeth. These sharks are swift moving, and one subspecies, the shortfin mako, is the fastest type of shark alive. Their bursts of speed can reach nearly 70 kilometers per hour!

At Stellwagen, mako sharks are known to prowl the waters, and sportfishermen are often giving chase.

Those Fields Must Have Smelled Interesting…

Striped Bass. Credit: Gabrielle Gu
Striped Bass. Second place in the 2018 High School Division. Credit: Gabrielle Gu, Grade 10, Westborough High School, Westborough, Mass.

The shimmering striped sea bass get their name from the half dozen horizontal stripes streaking down their bodies. Striped bass are a crucial species for the fishing industry along the East Coast, where they were once so plentiful that farmers sprinkled them over their fields as fertilizer!

The fish stock in the Atlantic dwindled in the 1980s, however, after overfishing and environmental conditions made it hard for the fish to survive. Luckily, the stock rebounded, and striped bass are one of the many species that make Stellwagen such fertile commercial fishing ground.

Here Comes the Sun(fish)

Ocean Sunfish. Credit: Paige Meadel
Ocean Sunfish. Third place in the 2017 High School Division. Credit: Paige Meadel, Grade 11, Falmouth High School, Falmouth, Mass.

With no tail and a pancake-shaped body, sunfish may be one of the most curious creatures at Stellwagen. They can span 4 by 3 meters across, and they like to bask in the Sun’s rays by floating on the ocean’s surface. The fin from a sunfish can look startlingly similar to that of a shark, leading to false alarms on beaches. These fish like to catch the Sun’s rays at Stellwagen in the summer months.

Eight-Armed Brainiac

Octopus. Credit: Xindi Chang
Octopus. Third place in the 2016 High School Division. Credit: Xindi Chang, Grade 10, Huron High School, Ann Arbor, Mich.

The common octopus is the most intelligent of invertebrates, and it can do all kinds of tricks to get away from its predators. The octopus can squirt ink, detach arms, and even camouflage itself in its surroundings. When the octopus isn’t being sneaky, it’s curled up in small little holes in the seafloor, where it likes to live out its life in solitude. Discerning eyes may be able to spot one on the seafloor in Stellwagen.

If you know a student who may want to tap into his or her creativity and compete next year, the 2019 contest opens this fall. Check for updates from the contest webpage.

—Jenessa Duncombe (@jenessaduncombe), News Writing and Production Intern


Duncombe, J. (2018), Dive into stunning sea-inspired art, Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO108849. Published on 02 November 2018.

Text © 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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