If you ever crave proof that aliens exist, take a look at some of the insane sea creatures scientists encounter in the deep sea. Last month, a team of 58 scientists from around the world embarked on 31 day oceanic voyage to research the ethereal life forms living at the bottom of the ocean off the Eastern coast of Australia. On May 15, the Sampling The Abyss team set out from Bell Bay in Launceston, Tasmania. During their month aboard the Marine National Facility research vessel, appropriately named Investigator , the crew visited seven different Commonwealth Marine Reserves, which are essentially National Parks for sea creatures, before returning to port in Brisbane mid-June.
The expedition was initiated by Museums Victoria in partnership with the NESP Marine Biodiversity Hub, and a government research organization called the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO). The goal of the trip was not only to document undiscovered sea life, but to research how they have adapted to harsh living conditions two-and-a-half miles below the ocean surface.
Despite the fact that it's the largest habitat on the planet, the deep sea is still largely unexplored by scientists. At such extreme depths, there is immense pressure, little food, no visible light, and the water is absolutely freezing. Needless to say, it produces some pretty crazy looking creatures.
Much of the aquatic life this far below the surface are small, slow moving critters that spend the majority of their life simply floating about. Some are cute and jellylike, while others are ferocious and cunning. With zero sunlight, these bottom dwellers either don't have eyes or produce their own light through bioluminescence.
The deep sea expedition marks the first time scientists have carefully studied the biodiversity of these ecosystems. Using special cameras, nets, and sleds, the team collected samples from habitats 8,200 to 13,000 feet below the surface. It's a slow process. At the ocean's deepest points, it can take up to seven hours just to lower and raise equipment from the bottom.
More than one third of the animals collected during the trip are completely new to scientists. Some of the creatures discovered for the first time include giant anemone-sucking sea spiders, flesh-eating crustaceans, zombie worms, and carnivorous sponges. By analyzing the chemistry and DNA collected from tissue samples, researchers will be able to better map patterns of biodiversity and deep sea food chains.
The team wasn't just there to sample and study sea life—they also sought to investigate water pollution's impact on the seafloor, as well as the presence of microplastics in surface waters. Dr. Tim O'Hara, the voyage's Chief Scientist and Museums Victoria's Senior Curator of Marine Invertebrates, writes, "We have found highly concerning levels of rubbish on the seafloor. We're 100 kilometers off Australia's coast and have found PVC pipes, cans of paints, bottles, beer cans, wood chips, and other debris from the days when steamships plied our waters. The seafloor has 200 years of rubbish on it. Hopefully, information such as this is the first step in influencing social attitudes towards rubbish disposal."
During the expedition, researchers used high tech multi-beam sonar to map the geographic layout of the sea floor. Scans taken during the expedition outline rocky plains, huge canyons, and underwater mountains scattered throughout the area. The mapping data picked up by sonar will, in turn, help the government to better preserve these particular marine environments.
In the coming months some of the extraordinary marine creatures will go on display at Museums Victoria's Melbourne Museum. Samples retrieved from the voyage will be studied and catalogued within the institution's vast natural science collection, as well as other museums in Australia and around the world.