The world’s oceans are the last frontier for discovery on Earth. They have gone largely unexplored throughout history not for lack of curiosity, but due to their vast size and crushing depths. Pioneering work done by ocean explorers, marine researchers, archaeologists and oceanographers over the last few decades have brought us much closer to understanding what lies beneath the ocean, but there is much left to discover. Marine research is one area of ocean exploration which has driven the development of underwater viewing devices, from bathyspheres in the 1930’s to Human Occupied Vehicles (HOVs) such as Woods Hole’s Alvin commissioned in the 1960’s, to today’s most modern Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) such as Woods Hole’s Nereus, which reached a depth of over 35,000 feet in the Mariana Trench in 2009. In each case, the goal has been to go deeper and capture more photos and video of the unknown depths. The dangers of deep water exploration have led most researchers to rely on remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) which allow explorers to do their work from the safety of the surface. Included below are three amazing discoveries made by marine researchers using underwater technology.
1. Discovery of Deep Sea Hydrothermal Vents
(photo credit: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
In 1977 Richard Von Herzen and Robert Ballard of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution discovered hydrothermal vents for the first time during an expedition to explore the Galapagos Rift. The team was measuring deep ocean temperatures by towing a research sled deep under water, and when the temperature reading spiked, they hadn’t just discovered the existence of hydrothermal vents, but to their surprise, they found a vast ecosystem of deep sea animals living around the vents. Like a deep sea oasis in the middle of a deep, dark desert, the hydrothermal vents provided a constant source of hydrogen sulfide, ejected from the earth’s crust through fissures and used by industrious bacteria to create energy by means of chemosythesis. By contrast, most life on earth gets its energy by means of photosynthesis.
2. Discovery of Bone-eating (Osedax) Worms
(Photo credit: Monterey Bay Research Institute)
In 2002 the Monterey Bay Research Institute discovered a new genus of deep-sea worms, dubbed “Zombie Worms” located in the Monterey Canyon. Osedax worms were found colonizing whale falls, the carcasses of dead whales which have settled to the deep ocean floor to decompose. Osedax worms embed themselves in whale bones and bore holes by secreting acid to reach nutrients within the bones. Osedax lack a mouth and a stomach, and completely rely on symbiotic bacteria to extract nutrients from the whale bones. Whale falls are an uncommon occurrence on the ocean floor, but for the most opportunistic and prolific microscopic life, no opportunity is left unused.
3. Discovery of Ghostlike Octopod
(Photo Credit: NOAA)
In 2016 the NOAA Okeanos Explorer discovered what is thought to be a new species of octopod which resembles a ghost, with a translucent white body and stubby arms. The photos and videos of this discovery are just one of dozens captured during the Hohonu Moana Hawaii Deep Water Expedition. Missions such as this create so much data that marine biologists will be analyzing them for years for new discoveries. What’s most exciting is that modern oceanic exploration has become a group activity, by utilizing telepresence and live streaming, experts and the public can drop in on underwater discoveries while they are happening, paving the way for the next generation of explorers to get involved and make a difference.
Each of these three underwater research missions relied on deep sea exploration technology, specifically, ROVs equipped with cameras. Modern day marine researchers have the tools to dive deep and capture stunning images of what lies on the ocean floor. With every new mission comes a chance for new underwater discoveries.