Chance observations go viral

The ocean’s dark depths hold many secrets. For more than three decades, MBARI has been exploring the deep waters off the coast of central California. Our remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) Ventana and Doc Ricketts have logged more than 5,800 dives and recorded more than 27,600 hours of video. This video archive includes more than 8.5 million annotations, data that are invaluable for scientists at MBARI and beyond who are seeking to unlock the mysteries of the deep.

We never know what we will see on a dive into the depths. We are constantly amazed by the beauty of deep-sea animals and habitats we encounter, but last year the MBARI team happened upon some especially unique finds.

ROV Ventana
Deep-diving ROVs are integral to MBARI’s work to document the diversity of life that thrives deep beneath the ocean’s surface. The ROVs Ventana (pictured) and Doc Ricketts have recorded thousands of hours of video, and this year, captured stunning footage of rarely seen species. Image: Todd Walsh © 2004 MBARI

In July, MBARI Senior Scientist Steve Haddock set out for an expedition on MBARI’s research vessel, the R/V Western Flyer, to the outer reaches of the Monterey Canyon to study deep-sea gelatinous zooplankton. While about 2,000 meters (6,600 feet) deep, the cameras aboard the ROV Doc Ricketts spotted a whalefish (family Cetomimidae).

Whalefishes are an obscure group of deep-sea fishes. Their eyes are very reduced as adults. Instead of relying on sight to survive, a highly sensitive system of sensory pores helps them feel vibrations in the water around them.

Because they live in the depths of the midnight zone, whalefishes have rarely been seen alive. In fact, MBARI has only encountered 16 of them during our extensive study of Monterey Bay. Researchers still have many unanswered questions about whalefishes, so the video recorded by our ROVs offered valuable insight for the scientific community. MBARI has shared footage from our fleeting glimpses of whalefishes with leading taxonomic experts in Australia to help them understand the diversity of this mysterious group of fishes.

Whalefishes (family Cetomimidae) have rarely been collected alive, so much of their biology remains a mystery. Most research on these fishes has been based on specimens collected by deep-water trawl nets. Observations from MBARI’s ROVs provide valuable insight into their natural history. This whalefish MBARI researchers observed in July 2021 had a swollen stomach indicating that it had the recent fortune to gulp in a large fish as prey. Video: © 2021 MBARI

This exciting encounter inspired the debut of MBARI’s Fresh from the Deep series, an insider’s look at our work with short clips from our research expeditions on YouTube and MBARI’s social media channels. Our tweet about the whalefish caught the media’s attention, eventually earning 179 mentions from print and digital media around the world. The YouTube video from our encounter has logged more than 720,000 views to date.

In November, MBARI Senior Scientist Bruce Robison spotted a ghostly giant during his expedition, also aboard the R/V Western Flyer.

Robison and his team happened upon a giant phantom jelly (Stygiomedusa gigantea), a deep-sea denizen that grows to more than one meter (about three feet) across and trails four ribbon-like oral, or mouth, arms that can grow to more than 10 meters (33 feet) in length.

Out of the darkness of the ocean’s midnight zone, MBARI’s ROV Doc Ricketts spotted a billowing crimson curtain. Moving in for a closer look, the submersible’s lights revealed the giant phantom jelly (Stygiomedusa gigantea). MBARI’s ROVs have logged thousands of dives, yet we have only seen this spectacular species nine times. Video: © 2021 MBARI

The giant phantom jelly was first collected in 1899. Since then, scientists have only encountered this animal about 100 times. It appears to have a worldwide distribution and has been recorded in all ocean basins except for the Arctic. The challenges of accessing its deep-water habitat contribute to the relative scarcity of sightings for such a large and broadly distributed species.

Historically, scientists relied on trawl nets to study deep-sea animals. These nets can be effective for studying hardy animals such as fishes, crustaceans, and squids, but jellies turn to goo in trawl nets. The cameras on MBARI’s ROVs have allowed our researchers to study these animals intact in their natural environment. High-definition—and now 4K ultra high-definition—video of the giant phantom jelly captures stunning details about the animal’s appearance and behaviors that scientists would not have been able to see with a trawl-caught specimen.

MBARI’s ROVs have only seen this spectacular species nine times, but even those few observations have yielded important scientific findings. Video of a giant phantom jelly we recorded in the Gulf of California confirmed scientists’ suspicions that this jelly lives symbiotically with the pelagic brotula fish (Thalassobathia pelagica). Robotic submersibles are revealing the ecology and behavior of delicate deep-sea drifters.

Our mesmerizing video of Stygiomedusa went viral—the short Fresh from the Deep clip has earned more than 4.5 million views on YouTube and is now MBARI’s fourth most viewed video on that platform. Our announcement about this encounter on Twitter has become our most engaged tweet. This ghostly giant even earned a mention from comedian Conan O’Brien. Media interest followed, with 366 stories about this mysterious jelly appearing in domestic and international outlets.

MBARI is working with our education and conservation partner, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, to bring the deep sea to you this spring. On April 9, the Aquarium will open Into the Deep: Exploring Our Undiscovered Ocean. This groundbreaking exhibition will bring visitors face-to-face with deep-sea animals like bloody-belly comb jellies, bubblegum corals, and Japanese spider crabs.

During a dive with our education and conservation partner, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the team came across a rare treat: a barreleye fish (Macropinna microstoma). Aquarist Tommy Knowles and his team were aboard MBARI’s R/V Rachel Carson with our ROV Ventana to collect jellies and comb jellies for the Aquarium’s upcoming Into the Deep exhibition when they spotted this fascinating fish. The team stopped to marvel at Macropinna before it swam away. Video: © 2021 MBARI

MBARI hosted the Aquarium team on the R/V Rachel Carson this past December to collect jellies and comb jellies for the upcoming exhibition. The team came across a rare treat during the dive: a barreleye fish (Macropinna microstoma).

MBARI has only come across this unusual fish nine times. It lives in the ocean’s twilight zone, at depths of 600 to 800 meters (2,000 to 2,600 feet). Its eyes look upwards to spot its favorite prey—usually small crustaceans trapped in the tentacles of siphonophores—from the shadows they cast in the faint shimmer of sunlight from above. But how does this fish eat when its eyes point upward and its mouth points forward? Thanks to our observations of this species at sea and in the lab, MBARI researchers learned the barreleye could rotate its eyes from upward to forward beneath that dome of transparent tissue.

Once again, the video MBARI shared online sparked a media sensation. The Fresh from the Deep clip we published in December has 1.7 million views on YouTube. Our sighting earned 905 media mentions from outlets around the globe. We also featured footage from this encounter in MBARI’s debut on TikTok.

In December 2021, MBARI’s Midwater Ecology Group spotted a pair of juvenile king-of-the-salmon (Trachipterus altivelis). We rarely see these unusual ribbonfish, so each encounter helps us gain a better understanding of this mysterious animal. Our encounters with seldom-seen deep-sea animals add to our efforts to establish a baseline for deep-sea biodiversity, a critical step toward our mission of understanding a changing ocean. Image: © 2021 MBARI

But one of the most fascinating finds this year? The ancient tusk of a mammoth.

During an expedition aboard the R/V Western Flyer in 2019, ROV pilot Randy Prickett and scientist Steven Haddock made a peculiar observation. While exploring a seamount located 300 kilometers (186 miles) offshore of California and 3,070 meters (10,000 feet) deep, the team spotted what looked like an elephant’s tusk. Only able to collect a small piece at the time, MBARI returned in July to retrieve the complete specimen.

The researchers have confirmed that the tusk—about one meter (just over three feet) in length—is from a Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi). The cold, high-pressure environment of the deep sea uniquely preserved the tusk, allowing researchers to study it in greater detail.

Now, Haddock and researchers from the Paleogenomics Lab, UC Santa Cruz Genomics Institute, and the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), and the Museum of Paleontology at the University of Michigan (U-M) are examining the tusk.

U-M paleontologist Daniel Fisher and his U-M Museum of Paleontology colleagues will use computed tomography (CT) scans to reveal the full three-dimensional internal structure of the tusk and more information about the animal’s history, such as its age.

Researchers from UCSC’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences will investigate when and how the tusk may have arrived deep offshore. The team believes it could be the oldest well-preserved mammoth tusk recovered from this region of North America. Preliminary dating by Terrence Blackburn and the UCSC Geochronology Lab suggests that the tusk is more than 100,000 years old. Other UCSC researchers will examine the oceanographic currents to pinpoint where the tusk originated.

Beth Shapiro and Katherine Moon at the UCSC Paleogenomics Lab plan to sequence the ancient DNA from the specimen, which could provide valuable insight into how mammoths colonized North America.

The ocean represents 99 percent of the space where life can exist on this planet, yet we still know very little about it. As interest in exploiting the deep sea by mining for valuable metals has grown—with the potential to place many marine animals in harm’s way—this surprising discovery, hidden on the seafloor for eons, serves as an important reminder of the many remaining mysteries worthy of our protection.

Education and outreach are a critical part of MBARI’s mission. We share data and videos from our expeditions with researchers around the globe. We also leverage social media to extend our reach and share the wonders of the deep with millions of people each year. For the latest updates on MBARI’s work, follow us on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr, and now TikTok. You can also receive monthly updates from our outreach team by subscribing to our e-newsletter.

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