This spring, in a canyon over 2,000 feet beneath the Indian Ocean surface, a robot happened upon a fantastical, coiled creature. This siphonophore, found laying like loosely piled rope on the seabed, might be the longest animal ever discovered. It’s well over 150 feet in length.
The discovery, made by scientists aboard the R/V Falkor, a vessel operated by the marine research organization the Schmidt Ocean Institute, was one of many unique sightings in, or newly published research about, the deep sea this year. The worst pandemic in a century may have canceled many marine expeditions, but discoveries in the ocean deep — abetted by robotic explorers — continued apace in 2020.
Marine scientists candidly admit humanity has “barely scratched the surface” of what transpires in the ocean’s “twilight zone,” a place extending some 660 to 3,300 feet below the surface. And we have better maps of the Martian surface than we do the ocean floor and its abyssal trenches. So it’s little surprise that when scientists go sleuthing around a largely unexplored deep sea place, they find novel things.
“We know so little about the deep ocean that pretty much anyone can find something new if they were doing something unique down there,” said Alan Leonardi, the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research.
What follows are some (though not nearly all) significant advances made in ocean exploration this year. More exploration will inherently follow. It’s who we are.
“Exploration is a human endeavor,” said Leonardi. “We were born naturally curious.”
Marine scientists published research in July detailing their discovery of a new sponge, Advhena magnifica, which translates to “magnificent alien.” The sponge looks like the alien Sci-Fi character “E.T.” — hence the name.
Using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), researchers collected the sample on a seamount in the Pacific Ocean at some 6,560 feet beneath the surface. One researcher marveled that the “magnificent alien” thrived in a “Forest of the Weird,” where a diverse collection of uncanny sponges stood on stalks, awaiting any passing nutrients.
“When we find a new genus or species, we are helping to describe our planet’s marine biodiversity, which refers to the variety of living organisms in the ocean, from bacteria and fungi to invertebrates and fish, all the way to marine mammals and birds,” Cristiana Castello Branco, the marine researcher who discovered the E.T. sponge, said in a NOAA interview. “As all of these organisms are intricately connected, by documenting and describing marine biodiversity, we are building a better understanding of life and the impact of humans on Earth (in this case, in the ocean).”
For the first time, NOAA researchers announced the discovery of a new species without collecting a sample.
Instead, they used high-quality video to document and eventually name a new, unusual comb jelly. It’s a translucent, hot air balloon-like creature.
Scientists spotted the new species some 25 miles off the coast of Puerto Rico in 2015. A NOAA ROV, with a high-definition camera, captured footage of the animal at some 12,830 feet beneath the surface. It took years of scrupulous research to confirm the new species.
“It’s really amazing they were able to do it from video alone.”
Using video to identify species in the deep ocean, rather than invasive sample collection, could play a critical role in discovery in the coming decades, and beyond.
“It’s really amazing they were able to do it from video alone,” said Brian Kennedy, a deep-sea ecologist and Ph.D. student at Boston University who had no role in the research. “I consider that groundbreaking.”
In 2018, marine scientists used an ROV to explore deep Pacific Ocean seamounts, found at some 9,800 feet underwater. They released the results and footage this year. The expedition looked for what lived around these remote, little-known submarine mountains in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, a giant swath of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Mexico.
A small bait box containing two pounds of mackerel attracted the largest group of deep sea fish, specifically cutthroat eels, ever seen.
“Our observations truly surprised us,” Astrid Leitner, who led the research and is a postdoctoral researcher at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, said in a statement. “We had never seen reports of such high numbers of fishes in the sparsely-populated, food-limited deep-sea.”
Reef taller than the Empire State Building
On Oct. 20, scientists mapping the sea floor around the Great Barrier Reef discovered a towering, isolated reef structure. At 1,640 feet (500 meters), it’s taller than the Empire State Building.
A detached reef hadn’t been discovered in the Great Barrier Reef in 120 years. Researchers made the discovery aboard the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s vessel the R/V Falkor.
“That’s a joyful find in such a down year,” said NOAA’s Leonardi, referencing the coronavirus outbreak and related struggles.
Today, about 20 percent of the world’s seafloor has been mapped. “We have better maps of the moon and Mars than our own planet,” noted Boston University’s Kennedy.
In June, marine biologists published research showing evidence, from pictures taken in late 2019, that a large squid fought a big shark in the deep ocean.
The key evidence was telltale “sucker” markings left on the shark’s skin.
“You can almost see the struggle, can’t you?”
“I can’t think of anything else except for a large squid that could make those circular marks,” Michael Vecchione, a cephalopod expert at the Smithsonian Institution who had no role in the study, told Mashable. (It’s unknown if the squid in question was a giant squid.)
Ocean explorers OceanX launched a new, highly-advanced vessel this year, the OceanXplorer. The 286-foot ship is designed to launch deep sea submersibles (which carry scientists and journalists), ROVs, and autonomous vehicles. One of OceanXplorer‘s first expeditions was to research robust corals in the Red Sea, which can be seen in the video above.
Many coral reefs, like Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, are dying as marine heat waves, in the ever-warming oceans, bleach corals. When corals bleach, they expel the colorful algae that inhabit the coral, stressing reefs and making corals more susceptible to dying. Yet, corals in the Red Sea survive in “hyper warm” waters. How so?
This weighty question is a critical reason OceanX ventured into the Red Sea. During the mission, OceanX observed detailed footage of remarkably healthy corals, at multiple depths, feeding on floating nutrients by opening and closing their polyps (3:08 in the video).
“With so many coral systems being devastated, bleached and dying out because of global warming, observing and studying healthy reefs that have withstood the pressures of environmental change can have much wider implications for coral science and restoration and ocean health across the world,” OceanX said in an email.
Eerie, alarming depths
In January, Antarctic researchers drilled a narrow 2,300-foot hole through the Thwaites Glacier — a Florida-sized ice sheet that has been destabilized by warmer ocean waters.
“Thwaites is the one spot in Antarctica that has the potential to dump an enormous amount of water into the ocean over the next decades,” Sridhar Anandakrishnan, a professor of glaciology at Penn State University, told Mashable earlier this year. Ultimately, this could mean many feet of sea level rise.
“It is a tremendous rate of retreat.”
The January research mission lowered Icefin — a long, cylindrical, yellow robot — down into the waters where the end of Thwaites floats over the ocean. Icefin captured the eerie, never-seen-before images of Thwaites’ critical “grounding zone,” the place where the glacier meets the ocean floor. This point acts like a plug, holding Thwaites back so bounties of ice on land can’t flow unimpeded into the sea, raising sea levels. Yet the grounding zone is retreating back (by about half a mile) each year as relatively warmer waters, ultimately a consequence of accelerating climate change, melt this deep ice. Scientists are watching closely.
“It is a tremendous rate of retreat,” said Anandakrishnan.
2020, like recent years, underscored that human exploration of the vast, uncharted ocean will be enhanced by our robotic explorers. It’s similar to how NASA deploys rovers on Mars: These rumbling robots can scour far-off realms without the profound expense and challenges of supporting human life.
This year, a fleet of four Saildrones — uncrewed, sailing marine robots — rode the seas from San Francisco to Northern Alaska and back. The mission aimed to fill in “major gaps” in Arctic shipping charts. The robots may play a growing role in the detailed mapping and exploration of our oceans. “I think those are really going to revolutionize and change how we do things,” said Kennedy.
Already, NOAA has funded a large, 72-foot Saildrone that Leonardi says is nearing completion. In addition to mapping the seafloor, the sailing robot can observe ocean microbes and particularly valuable environmental DNA (eDNA), which provides evidence of what animal and plant species are present in the waters. Crucially, these mapping expeditions, and inevitable discoveries, will point scientists to places of interest.
“We at least need to know what’s down there.”
Traditionally, large ships with mapping instruments affixed to their hulls have charted sea floors by bouncing sounds off the ground (called sonar). This is certainly valuable, but limiting. This ship-mapping is often low-resolution, meaning it doesn’t provide detailed observations of the sea floor (at best around 100-meter resolution, explained NOAA’s Leonardi). What’s more, ship expeditions can be costly, hindered by weather, and unable to venture into some areas. That’s how technologies like Saildrone, with enhanced mapping abilities, can accelerate exploration.
“The future is autonomous type stuff,” emphasized Leonardi. “Just mapping U.S. territorial waters is a several hundred-year proposition with ships.”
Exploring the deeps has become particularly salient in recent years: The prospect of deep sea mining looms large. The International Seabed Authority, the UN body that regulates mining minerals from the seafloor, is finishing rules for these deep ocean exploits. As of now, the laws governing deep sea mining are woefully outdated. They were established in 1975, but the first deep sea hydrothermal vents, and the life they support, weren’t discovered until 1977, explained Leonardi.
“They were devised at a time when no one thought there was much biologically down there,” he said. (There is.) Now, the UN is actively drafting sea floor mining codes and weighing new rules, which includes some public discourse. “That’s a positive thing,” said Leonardi.
The machines built for mining the sea floor are juggernauts. They are designed to unearth the seabed, like Japan’s tank-like equipment, which was tested in July. “If they turn that thing loose it will level everything alive on the sea floor,” said Kennedy. “That to me is super concerning.”
“These contraptions are like a combine [huge industrial harvester] on steroids,” added Leonardi. “They are designed to dredge the seabed.”
Last year, a group of international scientists asked the International Seabed Authority “to consider the input of the international science community when evaluating future requests for deep-sea mineral exploration.” Already, the International Seabed Authority has allowed nations to explore seabeds for minerals like nickel, cobalt, copper, and beyond. The inevitability of deep sea mining makes ocean exploration all the more pressing.
“We at least need to know what’s down there,” said Leonardi.