It appears that rare deep-sea creature finds are becoming a common headline on ocean news feeds and Live Science updates – finally, ocean exploration is starting to shine a light on what creatures thrive in the dark depths of the sea. But with so many discoveries, there are bound to be huge surprises. Surprises that could change the way we view ocean ecosystems, forever.
Scientists recently descended deep into the waters of Hawaii to explore underwater mountain ranges of dormant and active volcanoes, what they found was truly remarkable. Creatures behaving completely different to how they should, complex ecosystems hosting life forms living side-by-side that they believed couldn’t co-exist, and species of coral that could be new to science. The latter find being one that nobody expected – such an ecosystem to exist in the dim, cold, and mysterious mesophotic coral zone.
Exploring these underwater seamounts, which had peaks rising over 3,000 metres above the seafloor, Conservation International (CI) researchers wanted to find what life could reside in such a harsh environment.
“CI wanted to turn its focus to the deep sea – a vast, lesser-known area that we think is critical for better understanding ocean productivity,” Dr. Greg Stone, the executive vice president and marine biologist for CI, told UW360. “Much of the deep sea is so hostile to life people compare it to the desert, however seamounts are these diverse, vibrant, and mostly unknown ecosystems.”
Seamounts are undersea mountains formed by volcanic activity, scientists believe they’re unexplored goldmines in terms of biological richness. They’re extremely important for the ocean ecosystem, due to their effect on ocean currents and steep slopes that carry nutrients upwards from the depths of the oceans and provide food for creatures ranging from corals to fish crustaceans. These extinct or active submarine volcanoes typically rise to at least 3,000 metres from the seafloor in a conical shape and never reach the surface. Still much research is being carried out on the number of seamounts in the global oceans, but new estimates suggest that, taken together, they could encompass around 28.8 million square kilometres of the Earth’s surface – larger than any stretch of desert, tundra, or land-based global habitat on the planet. Even today, with our advanced technology systems and satellite mapping, the significance of seamounts, their ecological function, biodiversity, and relationship to humans is poorly understood.
One of the main aims was to discover how different one seamount could be from another in regards to ecosystem and life: To test this out, during the dives the scientists visited the McCall Seamount, the Lōʻihi Seamount and the Cook Seamount.
“Cook and McCall seamounts, as part of the geologist chain share many common features including their geology and many species of corals, but they are each unique, especially because each seamount ecosystem has evolved in semi-isolation from one another, relying upon currents to cross populate each site with non-pelagic species.” Stated Dr. Stone.
These deep sea expeditions require manned submersibles to dive deep into the ocean, in harsh conditions, to come face-to-face with unique organisms. It’s a common wonder for the recreational diver or ocean enthusiast on what it feels like to be so deep in these research vessels.
“The first thing you notice on dives like these is actually all of the bioluminescent plankton that you see on the descent. It just floats past the portholes as we dive. It’s stunning to stare into a dark abyss and see a light show. Once you land on the bottom and turn on the lights, the first thing you notice is the alien seafloorscape. From the craggy ravine rock bottom of Cook and McCall seamounts to the extreme conditions of Lō’ihi’s hydrothermal vents and volcanic activity, you feel like you have traveled to another planet.”
Incredibly, during the dives, the team observed seamounts that supported robust and diverse ecosystems.
“Across all the dives, we saw a multitude of gorgonian (fan) coral, as well as several dozen eels, kitefin sharks, dumbo octopuses and a Pacific Sleeper Shark.
“[Our most surprising find] was on the first day of diving. We came across at least one – and possibly two – species of coral that could be new to science. That is always an exciting discovery. The other thing that was surprising, observing kitefin sharks in groups when they visited our bait stations. This particular species of shark lives a predominantly solitary life and it was surprising to see so many of them at the same time.”
Perhaps one of the most incredible moments from the project was the reaction of a seemingly overwhelmed scientist as a Pacific Sleeper shark glided right up to the vessel’s window.
“That was an enthralling moment. We had been hoping to observe deep sea sharks and that Pacific Sleeper shark glided right up to the window of the Pisces V, which I was inside, and looked right back at us as if he was just as curious as we were. It’s astounding that large sharks can exist in an inhospitable habitat where food can be so hard to come by.” Dr. Stone recalled.
Experience some of the incredible finds that the researchers discovered © Conservation International
To capture this incredible footage, and aid in the research, the team had high definition cameras and even a 4K camera mounted on both of the submersibles. The submersibles themselves were the most special of the equipment used.
“They are essentially spaceships for exploring the inner space of our planet. Though they were designed in the 1970s, based on technology and concepts learned from the space program, they have had substantial updates and were each technological marvels.”
What the discoveries showed was the need for an increase in the scientific understanding of the deep lying ecosystems at the depths of the ocean, these surprising finds – including the new coral species – will help develop an idea of how the world’s oceans may function.
“Our comprehensive scientific study of our findings remains pending, however on the broadest scale, the outcomes of this exploration will inform important, real-time issues in the high seas, including increasing scientific understanding about the ecological function of seamounts, national and international policy relating to marine issues, and, quite importantly, the future of seamount conservation.”
Dr. Stone and his team are looking to begin exploring more seamounts across the Pacific over the coming decade.
“The future outcomes of this exploration will help build our knowledge of ocean processes around seamounts and beyond, making seamounts an exciting new frontier for ocean conservation and research.”