It’s June 2019, and Nathan Robinson is on board the Research Vessel Point Sur – a craft that’s cruising through the Gulf of Mexico. The scientist isn’t admiring his surroundings, though, as he’s immersed in a video feed from a deep-sea camera. But as Robinson watches the footage, thick tentacles undulate into the frame and seem to lash out towards the camera. And to make matters even more tense, this terrifying sighting is the first of its kind in U.S. waters.
Bizarrely, it seems that Robinson had in fact sought out this kind of terrifying experience when he first joined the project. He and a number of other scientists had actually embarked upon the mission – called Journey Into Midnight: Light and Life Below the Twilight Zone – in search of creatures of the deep. And the expedition – set to span 15 days in the Gulf of Mexico’s deep waters – was created to seek out the mystifying creatures of the deep.
However, the group didn’t only wish to observe these sea creatures in their natural habitats: they also wanted to discover how the organisms got around without using light to guide them. So with this goal in mind, the researchers deployed a special piece of equipment to watch over the animals.
Yes, the scientists used a deep-sea camera called the Medusa to document the animals’ movements beneath the surface. And to begin with, they captured footage of a number of relatively common creatures, such as lantern sharks and shrimp. However, Robinson then witnessed a stunning – and horrifying – sight in the last few days of the expedition.
The sea is of course home to a number of the world’s most fascinating animals, such as sharks and whales. And some of us are even afraid of these animals – particularly sharks. But it’s not only the creatures of the deep that make some people wary: the ocean itself can also be a cause for concern for a number of us. After all, we still don’t know for sure exactly what lies at the bottom.
So, in the summer of 2019 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) assembled a team to hopefully unravel some of these underwater mysteries. The agency recruited 12 individuals for the project – including Robinson. And the scientist seemed more than up for the task, as he had earned qualifications in both biological sciences and marine biology during his time at college.
But Robinson wasn’t the only crew member: NOAA also brought in academics including Edith Widder, Heather Judkins, Tamara Frank and Sönke Johnsen. And while these experts had all received doctorates, this particular project gave them the chance to learn something new about the deep sea – and even get up close to some of the ocean’s strangest inhabitants.
Yes, as we mentioned earlier, the project offered these individuals the opportunity to observe deep-sea animals. And to aid the researchers in their expedition, Widder brought her Medusa camera along as well – a piece of equipment that was specially designed for trips like this. In fact, the scientist had been developing the apparatus since 2012.
Deep-sea exploration vehicles tend to use white lights when traversing the darker corners of the ocean. But in Widder’s mind, these lights were actually having a detrimental effect – especially if researchers wanted to get close to any animals. As a result, she then came up with the idea for Medusa.
Instead of the standard white light, Widder decided to install a red light into her newly designed recording system. You see, this particular color can’t be seen by the vast majority of the deep sea population – giving the Medusa a significant advantage compared to other equipment. And the piece of equipment also boasted another innovative feature.
Yes, the scientist implemented a so-called LED optical lure that mimicked the behavior of jellyfish. As aficionados of the ocean may know, jellyfish emit a particular glow when they’re attacked, thus gaining the attention of large predators. So by adding this feature to the Medusa, Widder doubtless hoped that the apparatus would attract these fearsome creatures.
But before the scientists went out to sea with the Medusa in tow, Sönke Johnsen shared a few more details about what he and his colleagues were hoping to achieve. He wrote an in-depth post on the matter, in fact, and highlighted the team’s goals via NOAA’s official website. In turn, the professor also raised some very interesting points regarding aquatic life in the deep sea.
Johnsen wrote, “Our mission for this expedition is to explore what happens to deep sea animals when a very important constraint is taken away from them – that of light. Most of us see the ocean from the beach, where it is a green and murky thing. Those of us who live in Hawaii or parts of Florida see that water as more blue-green.”
“But nobody on land sees the ocean as it truly is,” Johnsen continued. “A shockingly pure and intense shade of blue. The open ocean looks like this because it absorbs light of all the other colors far more strongly, leaving only the blue – especially at depths greater than about 30 meters (100 feet).”
And Johnsen then brought up an intriguing point about the fish in the sea. According to him, the blue light affects their eyesight to the point where they can’t see anything that doesn’t have a bluish tinge to it. Yet apparently, this isn’t the case for the creatures that live in deeper parts of the ocean.
Johnsen explained, “At a depth of about 1,000 meters (3,280 feet), this limitation [of sight] goes away because the downwelling blue sunlight is too dim to see. The only remaining light is bioluminescence. Therefore, animals are no longer forced to only be sensitive to blue, and their eyes may branch out to other parts of the rainbow.”
Johnsen then touched upon the group’s hopes ahead of the 15-day expedition. He said, “Our goal is to explore this dark world, where the limiting rules of blue sunlight no longer apply, and animals are free to wander in larger color space. In particular, we are interested in the visual systems and bioluminescence of the animals that live here.”
With the plan laid out, then, Johnsen subsequently provided some more details about the team’s approach. Unsurprisingly, if the researchers were going to successfully find the answers that they sought, they required a number of different tools. So Medusa wasn’t the only thing that the group would be bringing with them for the trip, it seems.
“We will examine this world in several ways,” Johnsen wrote on NOAA’s website. “First, using the Global Explorer remotely operated vehicle (ROV), we will run transects at depths between 915 and 1,830 meters (3,000 and 6,000 feet), taking still and video images. [And this will be] along with low-light video to study the bioluminescence.”
Johnsen revealed that the vehicle could pick up a few of the animals as well, allowing the team to take a closer look at them on the Point Sur. But as the professor had already explained, that would only signal the beginning of their work: they also had other tools at their disposal to analyze the ocean’s depths.
“Second, we will use a 100-foot-long custom-built trawl net to collect animals at these depths – again for examination aboard the ship,” Johnsen added. “Finally, we will deploy the Medusa camera system. [It] will drift along by itself at these great depths, collecting imagery in a way that disturbs the animals less than a camera or a net would.”
It’s highly unlikely that anyone could’ve predicted what eventually happened in the final few days of the expedition, however. After the Medusa captured video footage beneath the surface on June 19, Robinson was tasked with reviewing the results. And it appeared to be a standard recording at first, with a few recognizable creatures passing by.
As Robinson continued to watch the footage, though, he was startled when a number of tentacles slithered into view. They subsequently flung themselves at the Medusa and flailed on camera for a brief period of time – before retreating back into the darkness. And once the strange creature had retreated, the researcher rushed to get the attention of his associates on board the ship.
To help describe what transpired next, both Johnsen and Widder authored a lengthy post on the NOAA website. The pair explained that this was the Medusa’s fifth trip below the surface during this particular project in the Gulf of Mexico. But this time, it had captured something truly extraordinary.
Yes, Widder and Johnsen wrote, “We knew immediately that it was a squid. It was also big, but because it was coming straight at the camera, it was impossible to tell exactly how big. But big – at least three to 3.7 meters (ten to 12 feet) long. Quickly, those who could identify animals of this sort pulled out identification books.”
“Latin names for animals shot out left and right [and] pictures were pointed to,” Johnsen and Widder continued. “The two of us that knew squid the best were ‘70 percent sure’ it was a juvenile giant squid, but we couldn’t go any further. We needed one of the best squid experts in the world: Michael Vecchione at the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Services.”
However, the researchers’ excitement then reportedly gave way to panic, as the weather threatened to ruin the significant discovery. You see, as a storm rolled in, the Point Sur was hit by a bolt of lightning – with the Medusa close by. Thankfully for everyone concerned, though, the equipment didn’t get damaged, and the footage survived.
Eventually, those on board the ship regained their sense of calm and attempted to contact Vecchione over the internet. They reached him soon after and sent over the Medusa’s footage. Then, following another wait, the team got in touch with him via the phone to hear his thoughts on the video.
Widder and Johnsen wrote, “After another painful wait, [Vecchione] wrote back to say that he was nearly certain that it was a giant squid, which is about as much as we could hope for. We cheered, talked about how to report it and then had dinner. With dinner finished, we moved to deploy the Medusa again.”
As for why this was such an important moment, one reason stands out from the rest: namely, the giant squid had never been sighted in U.S. waters before that expedition. And the massive aquatic animal has long been a mysterious presence in the ocean – earning a mythical reputation in the past. But in more recent times, we’ve been given tantalizing glimpses of the creature.
For instance, the very first photograph of a living giant squid was taken in 2004 by a couple of marine biologists in Japan. Prior to that, though, the only snaps that existed were of dead bodies that had washed ashore. But another breakthrough moment wouldn’t happen again for the next eight years.
In 2012, you see, Widder joined a group of researchers near Japan, and it’s here that they recorded the first footage of a giant squid in the water. It’s quite remarkable that she was also present for the 2019 encounter – experiencing two pieces of history. Yet the importance of her most recent expedition cannot be understated.
After all, her trip to the Gulf of Mexico had proved that giant squids weren’t just living in Asia – as the previous evidence somewhat suggested. And even though the juvenile isn’t a 40-foot-long adult, it may not be the only one in American waters. With this tantalizing prospect in mind, Widder and Johnsen discussed the matter further in their joint NOAA post.
Johnsen and Widder wrote, “We found the squid after only five Medusa deployments, despite the fact that thousands of ROV and submersible dives in the Gulf of Mexico have not done so. This suggests that the animal does not like the bright lights of ROVs – and that stealth monitoring can allow us to see what has never been seen before.”
“We also found [the giant squid] here, only about 100 miles southeast of New Orleans,” Widder and Johnsen said. “The old maps often showed serpents at the edge, with the warning ‘here be monsters.’ However, the ‘monsters’ are here – in our own backyard. It’s not often appreciated, but half of U.S. territory is underwater, extending 200 miles or so from the coast.”
After the footage was captured, it was subsequently posted on YouTube a couple of days later. And the brief clip has since earned close to two million views and generated more than 200 comments from online users. In addition to that, NOAA shared the post via its Facebook page in June 2019.
Once again, the incredible footage made waves online. The video scored over 75,000 views, for instance, and racked up in excess of 1,100 likes on the social media website. It also earned more than 1,200 shares and generated just under 130 comments, with users flocking to catch sight of the giant squid.
As for Widder and Johnsen, they made one final point on the subject via their post. After the pair had described the squid in terms that seemingly befitted a terrifying beast, they apparently wanted to make something perfectly clear in their conclusions – and it was rather at odds with their previous assertions.
“Most importantly, we did not find a monster,” Johnsen and Widder wrote. “The giant squid is large and certainly unusual from our human perspective. But if the video shows anything of the animal’s character, it shows an animal surprised by its mistake, backing off after striking at something that at first must have seemed appealing but was obviously not food.”
Widder and Johnsen added, “Our perspective as humans has changed. What were once monsters to be feared are now curious and magnificent creatures that delight. We like to feel that science and exploration has brought about this change, making the world less scary and more wondrous with each new thing we learn.”
The team’s encounter with a juvenile squid is far from the only incredible deep-sea encounter that has been captured on film, though. In fact, in the same month that Widder and the scientists had made their discovery, experts in the Atlantic Ocean experienced another jaw-dropping animal interaction.
Almost 1,500 feet below the surface, researchers are filming the Atlantic Ocean seabed using a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV). Yet in among the harmless fish, coral and sponges, something far more sinister is lurking. And as the team watch a school of sharks feasting on a swordfish carcass, a mysterious creature makes its deadly move.
The researchers had been exploring the ocean floor for 45 long minutes, watching live images beamed from the ROV. But then they stumbled upon a fresh carcass – one that drew creatures from far and wide to feast upon its flesh. And while fish, eels and crabs had all got involved, a band of sharks was really dominating the feeding frenzy.
The members of the dogfish family – with their beady eyes and wide mouths – dug in with ruthless abandon, in fact. But surprisingly, this was far from the most frightening thing that the team would discover in the depths below. As the predators continued to feast on the carcass, you see, another creature zoomed in to take the spotlight. And it made a shocking on-screen debut that the researchers will never forget.
After all, in the 21st century, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we know everything there is to know about planet Earth. Yet despite mankind conquering the world’s highest mountain peaks and exploring its remotest jungles, there are still hugely unexplored swathes. We’re talking mainly, of course, about the depths of the oceans that remain incredibly hazardous to humans.
In fact, it’s often said that we know more about outer space than the world beneath the waves. And with water making up over 70 percent of the Earth, there remain plenty of hidden secrets. With the help of scientists, though, we are finally beginning to unravel at least some of the mysteries of the sea.
Today, you see, scientists believe it is more important than ever to understand how the oceans and our climate are changing. So organizations such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) commit themselves to studying the dynamics of planet Earth. And what’s more, these firms often openly share their knowledge and findings.
But it’s the NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (OER) we are interested in on this occasion. Because this team of staff deal with exploring the secrets of the deep. And through studying the world beneath the waves, its researchers hope to safeguard the future of life on Earth.
“America’s future depends on understanding the ocean,” a statement on the OER’s website reads. “We explore the ocean because its health and resilience are vital to our economy and to our lives. We depend on the ocean to regulate weather and climate; sustain a diversity of life; for maritime shipping and national defense; and for food, energy, medicine, and other essential services to humankind.”
So on May 30, 2019, the NOAA launched an ocean expedition. It was part of the organization’s “Windows to the Deep 2019: Exploration of the Deep-sea Habitats of the Southeastern United States” studies. The dives would also occur in two stages and last 44 days in total – with the aim of improving knowledge surrounding largely misunderstood environments. Specifically, this would apply to the coastal areas of states such as North and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
According to the OER website, the purpose of this mission was manifold. So as well as studying locations where methane seeps through the seafloor, the researchers also hoped to find unusual sponge and coral ecosystems. Additionally, the team aimed to explore underwater canyons in the area and document any life that may have emerged within them.
Perhaps the most exciting objective, though, was the search for relics that lie scattered across this part of the Atlantic. “There is perhaps no greater potential for archaeological studies in U.S. waters than along the Eastern Seaboard,” the NOAA’s Joseph Hoyt wrote on the organization’s website. And it was in this region that the researchers hoped to uncover evidence of a rich maritime history.
“This expedition NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer affords a rare opportunity to search the seabed for these connections to our past,” Hoyt continued. “What could we find? A small coastal trader? A paddle wheel steamer? A massive steel oil tanker? All are possibilities, and all have the potential to focus our attention on a forgotten piece of our shared heritage.”
Before the expedition, you see, the NOAA had worked with fisheries and scientists to identify areas of interest off the southeastern coast. And during the first leg of the project, researchers worked on board the Okeanos Explorer to map out these regions. Then, a little over two weeks later, the experts moved on to the second leg of the project.
From June 20 onwards, then, the team began using a ROV to collect data from the seafloor. And eight days later, the researchers launched the seventh dive of the expedition – some 80 miles from the South Carolina coast. In fact, they dove to a depth of more than 650 feet in the hope of uncovering evidence of a long-lost shipwreck.
Yes, the team hoped to discover the remains of the American oil tanker SS Bloody Marsh. A German U-boat had apparently sunk the vessel in the waters off South Carolina during World War II. As the story goes, in fact, the ship had been en route to New York from Houston, Texas, in July 1943. Because of its potentially volatile cargo, then, the tanker was high on the NOAA’s wishlist of targets.
Sadly, though, the team couldn’t find the remains of the SS Bloody Marsh this time round. They did, however, discover an abundance of fascinating marine life while exploring the seafloor in the region. And soon the researchers switched the focus of this particular dive from wreck-hunting to biological and geological studies.
The expedition quickly began to turn up results too. In fact, the researchers identified a species of coral that had not been previously seen during earlier dives. This was a “stony” coral from the family hydrozoa. But it was what the team stumbled upon in the last 45 minutes of the dive that really caused a stir.
For, as we’ve seen, researchers watching live footage from the ROV spotted a cluster of sharks gathered around a swordfish carcass, which had sunk all the way to the ocean floor. The unfortunate creature had seemingly only recently died, though, and as many as 11 predators had started into its quickly-depleting remains.
According to the experts, the sharks in this free-for-all were actually representatives of two different species – both members of the Squalidae family. As well as a number of roughskin dogfish, which can grow to up to four feet, there were also numerous Genie’s dogfish. Interestingly, Genie’s dogfish were only discovered in 2018, when they were named after Dr. Genie Clark, a renowned marine scientist.
And the NOAA researchers believe that these dogfish had likely traveled long distances in order to feed on the dead swordfish. What’s more, the team suspect that the sharks’ tracking down of the carcass could have had something to do with vibrations or chemicals in the water. For example, the experts say the dogfish could have picked up on vibrations made while the swordfish struggled.
To add to this, researchers noted how the feast was a strong example of the marine food chain in action. What does that mean? Well, the swordfish, normally based either near the surface or at medium depths, died before traveling to the seabed. There, it became a worthy meal for creatures living at the bottom of the ocean.
The unusual sight of sharks feeding on a swordfish was far from the most exciting thing to take place, though. In fact, as the researchers watched the creatures feed, via the ROV, something incredible happened. That’s when, from the gloom outside the ROV’s light beam, a giant wreckfish sailed into view.
Typically found in deep water, wreckfish often lurk in underwater caves and among the remains of sunken ships. In fact, this is the reason for their evocative name. Mostly blue-gray in appearance, the marine fish display ridges of spiny fins along their upper sides and boast big heads. But let’s not forget to mention that wreckfish are equipped with equally cavernous mouths. And soon, the researchers would see first-hand just what damage this creature’s mighty jaws were capable of.
Normally, you see, wreckfish feed on migrating creatures such as squid and other fish. And with a plentiful supply, the creatures can actually grow to a staggering 6.5 feet in length and weigh a maximum of 220 pounds. They can also live as long as seven decades in the right conditions. What’s more, wreckfish have no predators that we know of.
At first glance, then, the researchers might not have thought the swordfish was an obvious source of nutrition for the wreckfish. In the footage, in fact, this particular creature doesn’t appear to want to join the feeding frenzy taking place among the sharks. But the clever predator seemingly has something entirely different in mind. And it didn’t concern going after dead flesh.
So as the researchers watch, the wreckfish swiftly emerges from the shadow of the ROV. Apparently, it had been using the vehicle as cover to approach the sharks, who remained unaware of its presence. And before anyone can register what is happening, the creature snatches up a dogfish in its powerful jaws.
The crew can see the tail of the doomed dogfish wriggling hopelessly in the predator’s jaws too. And perhaps unsurprisingly, they react to the incredible sight with awe. “Oh my God!” cries out one researcher. “Yes. It has a whole shark in its mouth… Wow, I’m going to remember this forever.”
It then became clear that the crew of Okeanos Explorer weren’t the only ones awestruck by the wreckfish’s feeding tactics. Because within weeks of being uploading to YouTube, the video footage had been viewed more than 1 million times. Writers for a number of online science websites were quick to draw attention to the staggering footage too.
Yet it’s not the first time that a predator has been caught on camera indulging in a surprising meal. In fact, in August 2014 the YouTube channel Gimbb14 published a video of a fisherman hooking a black tip shark. This had happened off the coast of Bonita Springs in Florida. But sadly, the angler’s triumph did not last for long.
In the clip, the fisherman attempts to reel in his four-foot catch – and then an ominous shadow rises up from the depths below. And suddenly, a massive grouper breaks the surface of the water, snatching the shark in one vicious bite. Then, as those on the boat react with amazement, both creatures quickly vanish beneath the waves.
It may surprise you to learn that this grouper video has been viewed more than 67 million times on YouTube. And apparently such ambitious meals are not unheard of where groupers are concerned. In fact, some four years later, a similar creature made the headlines in Everglades City. This is actually just about 50 miles from where the previous incident took place.
So, in July 2018, the Florida-based Everglades Fishing Company released a video from a recent excursion. And in it, a lucky angler can be seen landing a sizeable shark. Just as the catch is being reeled in, though, the shadow of another giant grouper appears nearby. But this time, Captain Jimmy Wheeler knows exactly what to expect.
“Watch this, you guys are going to freak out,” Wheeler warns his oblivious passengers in the clip. And suddenly, an Atlantic goliath grouper snatches the shark from the surface in one big gulp. According to those present, in fact, the massive fish weighed in at a staggering 500 pounds.
“He just sucked it in,” Wheeler’s wife, Michelle, explained in a 2018 interview with Fox News. “I don’t remember ever seeing anything this crazy.” The crew noted that the shark was not the grouper’s only big meal of the day, though. In fact, Wheeler himself later observed the same creature feasting on a stingray – or possibly a manta ray.
Unlike the wreckfish, goliath groupers are actually typically found in shallow waters of tropical regions. And usually they feast on a diet of smaller prey such as fish, crustaceans and octopodes. They have, however, been observed attacking larger creatures, such as lemon sharks and even human divers. Their size can be something to behold too.
Under the right conditions, in fact, goliath groupers can grow to more than eight feet long and can weigh almost 800 pounds. They are therefore becoming a nuisance for the fishermen who share the same waters. “They’re eating everything,” Michelle said. Yet goliath groupers are protected in Florida due to their dwindling populations – so it’s rightfully unlikely to be stopped anytime soon from indulging in large meals.
In this instance, however, the goliath grouper ultimately failed to make a meal of the struggling shark. After a brief struggle with the giant fish, in fact, the fisherman eventually persuaded the predator to relinquish its prey. Wheeler and his team actually hoped to release the unfortunate creature back into the sea.
But let’s get back to the NOAA team. After their wreckfish encounter, then, the experts continued to research the underwater habitats off the southeastern United States. And before the expedition finished on July 12, they actually completed a total of 19 dives. Those additional forays underwater also delivered a number of other highlights to the mission.
For example, on the expedition’s 17th dive, the researchers captured incredible footage of an octopus protecting her eggs. This is a job that the creature might actually still be undertaking up to four years down the line. And on their next trip beneath the surface, in Baltimore Canyon, the team stumbled upon an amazing collection of bubblegum coral. Eventually, though, the mission concluded with a visit to the Norfolk Seeps – an area where methane escapes through the seafloor.
But while the researchers gathered numerous fascinating insights, the encounter from their seventh outing remained the most dramatic. “Sometimes ‘sharks just happen,’” the University of Connecticut’s Peter J. Auster explained in a June 2019 post on the OER website. “You can’t plan on seeing these kinds of things, especially in the deep ocean. It is simply serendipity; by just spending enough time underwater and being prepared for the unexpected, you can stumble across scenes that will replay in your mind’s eye over and over for a lifetime.”