Cosmic jellyfish: Chrysaora

Photo: Alexander Semenov

When viewing the ethereal underwater photography of marine biologist Alexander Semenov, you'll find yourself transported to a realm in which jellyfish nonchalantly undulate across a dark, glimmering cosmos, like this northern sea nettle above. Make no mistake — these starry backgrounds are actually the result of oceanic particles being captured by a camera's flash, but if you suspend your disbelief, your eyes might begin to imagine far-off constellations or interstellar dust clouds.

That may sound over the top, but if you think about it, comparing the Earth's oceans to the universe at large isn't all that far-fetched.

Alexander SemenovConsider for a moment that even though oceans cover 70 percent of the planet's surface, humans have explored less than 5 percent of these dark depths. Sure, the ocean/universe analogy is far from perfect given the sheer scale of the universe, but you have to admit it's kind of interesting to think that even as we keep an ear out for alien life in the farthest reaches of space, there are still completely unknown forms of life on our own world!

Semenov (who previously dazzled us with these flamboyant marine worms) uses underwater photography as a tool to observe and study obscure underwater life at Moscow State University's White Sea Biological Station on the chilly northwestern coast of Russia.

Take jellyfish, for example. In the photo below, we see Cyanea capillata, also known as the lion's mane jellyfish.

Cosmic jellyfish: Tangled Cynea capillata

With tentacles extending up to 36 meters and a dome that can grow to 2.3 meters in diameter, the lion's mane jellyfish is the largest known cnidarian in the world (though not as large as some deceptive viral photos will lead you to believe). Interestingly enough, this jumbo jelly loses all of its fluttery tendrils after it reproduces, leaving it in an oddly "nude" state that resembles a bizarre alien-like flower (below).

Cosmic jellyfish: Tendril-less cynea capillata

In addition to his research work with Moscow State University, Semenov is also in charge of the Aquatilis Expedition, a three-year project that aims to set a new bar when it comes to educating people through underwater exploration.

"Aquatilis represents a new kind of research, one which perfectly blends art and science, and one which involves both regular people and the top minds in the scientific community," Semenov tells MNN. "It’s driven by an international team of divers, scientists and videographers [who aim] to find, capture and study new species and photograph sea creatures as never before."

The Aquatilis team follows a scientific research philosophy similar to that of 19th century naturalists, in which first-person observation and documentation served as the main method studying the natural world and inspiring new generations of explorers and scientists. After all, how else could the average person witness and feel inspired by a lion's mane jellyfish consuming a moon jellyfish (below at right) without the hard work of explorers willing to take the time to share their experiences?

Cosmic jellyfish: Cyanea capillata eating Aurelia aurita

The importance of popular culture and media in inspiring others to pursue scientific study cannot be stressed enough. As Semenov explains:

"What inspired hundreds of thousands of people all over the world start studying science? Was that ember of passion sparked after reading articles with endless tables of statistic data or massive DNA-sequence comparisons? No, it wasn't. On the contrary, most of them were drawn to science because they read the marvelous books of Gerald Darrell, Isaac Asimov or Jules Verne; or [they] watched 'The Cousteau Odyssey.' It's absolutely necessary to show people how interesting and exciting it can be to study the world."

Feeling inspired yet? Continue below to see more jaw-dropping jellyfish, and be sure to follow all the latest Aquatilis updates on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. If you want even more amazing underwater photography, visit Semenov's website!

Cosmic jellyfish: Green light

Cosmic jellyfish: Spaceship-like jelly

Cosmic jellyfish: Elegant

Cosmic jellyfish: Pacellophora camtschatica

Cosmic jellyfish: Pink tendrils of Cyanea capillata

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Catie Leary is a photo editor at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.

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