There’s exciting news coming out of the Mariana Trench’s mind-boggling depths. Deep sea explorers discovered a snailfish species living more than five miles — FIVE MILES! – deep in the Mariana Trench. It has been named the Pseudoliparis swirei, and according to this National Geographic article, “…scientists suspect they are unlikely to ever find a fish that lives much deeper.”
But it’s the deep sea, the least-explored part of our earth, so who can imagine what else marine researchers may find. As University of Washington marine biologist Mackenzie Gerringer notes,
“We think of it as a harsh environment because it’s extreme for us, but there’s a whole group of organisms that are very happy down there,” said lead researcher Mackenzie Gerringer, a marine biologist at the University of Washington. Further research in these depths may yield even more weird discoveries. “There are a lot of surprises waiting.”
“Only the ocean remains as the last great unexplored portion of our globe; so it is to the sea that man must turn to meet the last great challenge of exploration this side of outer space.” –Deep Challenge (1966) by H. B. Stewart
Marine biologist David Gallo brings the mind-bending world of ocean exploration alive in his latest talk about the fascinating and largely unexplored undersea world. As he notes, “Today we’ve only explored about 3 percent of what’s out there in the ocean. Already we’ve found the world’s highest mountains, the world’s deepest valleys, underwater lakes, underwater waterfalls … . There’s still 97 percent, and either that 97 percent is empty or just full of surprises.”
Watch this – it’s entrancing:
Gallo and his team, NOAA’s Ocean Explorer teams, Dr. Edith Widder, and so many more, are among those who’ve been exploring the oceans’ depths for years. This year is a pivotal time in deep sea exploration – with James Cameron’s DeepSea Challenge, Richard Branson’s Virgin Oceanic and Dr. Sylvia Earle’s DOER marine all aiming to explore at the ocean’s deepest point – the fabled Mariana Trench. Before James Cameron reached the bottom of the Trench last month, there had been a 52 year drought — only Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh had done it before — in 1960.
With this ocean-oriented race to the bottom, we’re surely on the brink of vast and astonishing discoveries of life in the least-hospitable, oxygen-starved depths of our planet.
Another fascinating creature of the deep ocean. This one, the barreleye (Macropinna microstoma), also called the “spookfish” for obvious reasons, provides plenty of mystery for scientists to unravel.
When researchers at MBARI sent ROVs to deep waters off the coast of California a couple years ago, they believe they solved the half-century question of what this fish’s tubular eyes can do (the eyes are the greenish half-orbs pointed up, not the two dark spots on the front of the fish’s ‘face’ – it’s wild – watch the video). They also discovered a new feature of its remarkable head:
“…its eyes are surrounded by a transparent, fluid-filled shield that covers the top of the fish’s head. Most existing descriptions and illustrations of this fish do not show its fluid-filled shield, probably because this fragile structure was destroyed when the fish were brought up from the deep in nets.”
What will future research reveal about about this intriguing fish?
A favorite sea phenomenon – bioluminescence, or the living lights of the ocean.
Kick back and enjoy a moment of deep sea wonder in this holiday season:
It never gets old for many, including Dr. Edith Widder, who studies bioluminescence in sea creatures:
“During my first open ocean dive, I went down to 800 feet and turned out the lights. I knew I would see bioluminescence, but I was totally unprepared for how much. It was incredible! There were explosions of light everywhere, like being in the middle of a silent fireworks display.”
Wired is featuring a terrific resurrection of this exciting ocean exploration story –
“Fifty-one years ago this Sunday, Swiss engineer Jacques Piccard and Navy oceanographer Don Walsh descended to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, seven miles below the sea’s surface. It’s the lowest point on Earth, and deeper than any human had gone before — or since.”
It looks like a molar tooth drenched in gold, or maybe a metallic mylar birthday balloon. But this is a bathypelagic ctenophore, photographed near the Mid-Atlantic Ridge of the Atlantic Ocean. The ‘bathypelagic zone’ is the layer of the ocean about 3,000 – 13,000 feet deep, sometimes called “The Midnight Zone”, because there is no light at these depths.
Ctenophores are known to many as comb jellyfish – they have eight rows of cilia that look like combs, which they use to move through the sea. Researchers say this one anchors to the seafloor with its tentacles.
Researchers collaborating on the Census of Marine Life returned from an expedition to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, brimming with findings of new creatures, reporting on unexpected abundance of some already-known creatures, and sharing stunning photos (like this one) with the world.
“This expedition has revolutionised our thinking about deep-sea life in the Atlantic Ocean. It shows that we cannot just study what lives around the edges of the ocean and ignore the vast array of animals living on the slopes and valleys in the middle of the Ocean,” said Professor Monty Priede, Director of the University of Aberdeen’s Oceanlab.
As we’ve blogged, the site of the BP oil disaster has been explored and mapped to some degree by NOAA – some of it funded by the Minerals Management Service.
During last fall’s deepwater expedition in the area, researchers were energized by the forests of deepwater Lophelia they found – it’s a type of coral that can be a vital foundation species to the health of the oceans. But much remains (remained?) to be discovered at depth there.
“The effects of underwater dispersant use on the environment are still widely unknown, which is why we are testing to determine its effectiveness first and foremost. If it is determined that the use of this dispersant underwater is effective and that BP may continue its use, the Federal government will require regular analysis of its impact on the environment, water and air quality, and human health. We reserve the right to discontinue the use of this dispersant method if any negative impacts on the environment outweigh the benefits.”
Testing on a grand scale and then deciding over time if the negative impacts might outweigh the benefits? Of course, the relatively slow pace of scientific research means the determination of negative impacts will lag far behind any immediate ‘benefits’ of the chemicals breaking up oil slicks.
Countless known and little-known sea creatures in the waters of the Mississippi Canyon and beyond are being inundated with the gushing oil. Adding a brew of mystery chemicals to the mix is irresponsible at best – our government can do much better by us and by our environment than sanction wild and desperate use of untested chemicals.
Among the many creatures in the Gulf’s deep waters? Bioluminescent sea creatures like jellyfish – scientists have been working for years to unlock the secrets of this phenomenon.
A transparent sea cucumber, photographed 1.7 miles down (2,750 meters) in the Northern Gulf of Mexico. Scientists found this transparent sea cucumber, Enypniastes, creeping forward on its many tentacles at less than 1 inch (2 cm) per minute while sweeping detritus-rich sediment into its mouth. From LiveScience; photo by Larry Madin, Woods Hole Oceanographic Inst.
The fact that the BP oil leak is gushing a mile underwater has kept the incident from becoming the complete public relations disaster it would be if a fraction of the oil geyser’s output was coming anywhere near lots of shore or humans.
This is divine luck for BP right now.
But it’s the opposite for the wildly diverse and biologically important life in the Gulf of Mexico’s deep waters.
The creatures of the deep sea are not entirely documented nor understood by researchers. Complex, labor-intensive and invaluable expeditions have been regularly trying to find these creatures, document them, and study their wondrous biologies, including bioluminescence and visual polarization. Thousands and thousands of creatures somehow thrive in darkness. Some are so delicate, their bodies disintegrate when scientists try to capture them for study.
It’s difficult to know how the sea life anywhere near the mile-deep oil spigot – or those being soaked in BP’s chemical dispersant (Corexit 9500) – will live through it. And even harder to understand how the damage at those depths could be documented.
It will be the silent, unmarked devastation of the Deepwater Horizon blowout. We’ll probably never know the magnitude of destruction at depth.
Oil from the Deepwater Horizon’s well is spewing 5,000 gallons of oil a day into the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico’s Mississippi Canyon. Engineers try to build a dome over the gusher, while others work on digging a “relief” well nearby in a bid to stop the flow.
Above, an example of the Mississippi Canyon 751 site (near Deepwater Horizon well) where coral and cold seep habitats intersect. On the left is the gorgonian coral Callogorgia americana. On the right is the seep tubeworm. From Lophelia II expedition, 2009.
Tubeworms living on the same piece of carbonate rock as large colonies of the gorgonian Callogorgia Americana americana. Note the brittle stars and a galatheid crab crawling on the gorgonians. Photo by Derk Bergquist.