We Checked in With the Scientists Who Discovered That Mysterious “Orb” Thing Two Miles Underwater | Technology


A delicate coral, the color of a cherry blossom or a peony, moves gently with the water, each of its intricate arms outfitted with curled, spindle-like fingers. Unlike some of its relatives, this coral is skeleton-free — almost gelatinous in appearance, and see-through around the edges.

The camera, outfitted to the side of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) remote-operated vehicle (ROV), zooms back out, turning its eye forward as the vessel continues its trek along the seafloor. There’s life everywhere, but roughly two miles under the surface, it’s not like we’re used to. Some creatures, like the pink coral, look like they climbed off the pages of Dr. Seuss; others, like craggly, long-armed spider stars and misshapen squat lobsters, evoke something more like Tim Burton.

The rover keeps going. To the right sits another soft-bodied coral, this one bright white and fan-shaped. The NOAA researchers operating the ROV, who can be heard chattering over the dive’s live feed, describe the creature off-hand as a “sea orchid,” as “sea lily” has already been taken. A lone shrimp, meanwhile, can be seen sitting at the bottom-left corner of the screen, its black eyes staring, unblinking, into the murky deep.

That’s but a minutes-long glimpse into NOAA’s ongoing Alaska Seascape 5 mission, the latest installment of the agency’s efforts to fully map the Gulf of Alaska’s seafloor — a lofty goal, considering both the size of the Alaskan Gulf and the fact that it’s never before been done. And at its incredible depth, the freezing cold and high pressure environment is profoundly unforgiving. The massive undersea landscape is new to human eyes — as is the sunlight-free ecosystem that flourishes within it.

“We picked it because we thought it was going to be a weird place,” NOAA physical scientist Sam Candio, the expedition’s coordinator, told us over a video call. “And then we see weird stuff down there.”

It’s all fascinating, not to mention undeniably…

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