"Lo, though nature red in tooth and claw..."

-Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1850

Deep Ocean Discoveries

Posted by MaryEllen On 4:59 PM

One of the wonderful effects of our ever-increasing technological know-how is that we can now explore worlds that we have never been able to visit before. No, I don’t mean distant planets, but worlds that exist right here on Earth – isolated mountaintops and valleys, the canopies of the cloud forests, and inhospitable regions previously inaccessible. But perhaps the most amazing new universe we have discovered on Earth is that of the ocean. The ocean covers 75% of the surface of the earth, but until recently, we have never been able to explore its depths. We have had to make guesses about what it is like at the bottom of the sea, and what might live there, based on tiny bits of information – a carcass washed ashore, a strange creature brought up by fishermen, a skeleton of something we can’t identify.

But due to huge advances in underwater technology, robotics, and imaging systems, we can now visit the deep parts of the ocean. We can now go down to the sea floor in many areas, in depths of such crushing pressure and total blackness that we had always thought that nothing could survive there. The premise that we humans operated on was that nothing could survive without sunlight of some type, and that the pressure would be too great for life to succeed. We envisioned the sea floor as a desolate, empty expanse of rock and sand.

And how wrong we were! The lower depths of the ocean are absolutely teeming with life, in shapes and sizes previously unimaginable. Consider the giant squid. This creature was known only from a few incomplete carcasses brought up by fishermen, and for some time was considered a creature of legend, not even real. But now we have seen amazing underwater footage of this animal, confirming the existence of an animal that can reach over 40 feet in length. The giant squid lives deep in the oceans, only rarely surfacing, and it wasn’t photographed until 2004, with video footage taken in 2006, only five years ago. Other animals only recently discovered include an octopus that imitates other fish, so as to sneak up on its prey (the mimic octopus); a crab covered with spines that look like hair; a snail that construct its shell out of iron and is magnetic; and a fish that has a completely transparent head and can rotate its eyes 90 degrees, from looking straight ahead to looking directly overhead. There are tube worms eight feet long that live in volcanic vents on the ocean floor, at temperatures of over 600F. Jellyfish with tentacles 12 feet long swarm under the Antarctic ice; and eerie glow-in-the-dark fish with huge teeth patrol the ocean floor. Some of the new discoveries are so strange that no one is even sure if they are plants, animals, or something not yet defined.

While most humans dream about the possibility of life on distant planets, deep-water biologists are discovering new forms of life right here on our own planet. Every discovery they make expands our ideas of how life evolved, what conditions can support life, and how we categorize life. While looking to the stars and dreaming of new life is fun, what is even more amazing is looking to our oceans and actually finding it.



  1. Wonderful! The sensitivity and insight of E. O. Wilson. The next time I walk the Nova Scotia shore of Bay of Fundy hoping for the least possible glimpse of a whale I will think of this.
    Charlie Francis

    Posted on May 22, 2009 at 3:28 PM

  2. MaryEllen Said,

    oh, thank you! I appreciate the feedback. I hope you will visit again - I put up new articles every Thursday.

    Posted on May 22, 2009 at 3:39 PM


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