Scientists spent three weeks exploring the Gulf of Mexico’s uncharted ocean habitats — and the images they captured are fascinating

A goosefish (Lophiodes beroe) was observed at ~640 meters (~2,100 feet). These fish are fairly common at about 600 - 800 meters (~1,970 - 2,625 feet) deep. A type of anglerfish, the lures are visible in the center of its face.

caption
A goosefish (Lophiodes beroe) was observed at ~640 meters (~2,100 feet). These fish are fairly common at about 600 – 800 meters (~1,970 – 2,625 feet) deep. A type of anglerfish, the lures are visible in the center of its face.
source
Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018.

Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration conducted an expedition to explore uncharted waters in the deepest parts of the Gulf of Mexico– and the images they brought back are astonishing.

During the mission, scientists spent three weeks aboard NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer exploring and documenting some of the little-understood species who call the seafloor home.

Using a mix of remote-operated submersibles (ROVs), and shore-based instruments, the team brought back stunning images of these previously unexplored areas.

Check out what they brought back from the inky depths below:


Here’s the Okeanos Explorer in port. On this expedition, the scientists spent three weeks exploring the Gulf of Mexico, trying to understand the rarely visited depths.

source
Image courtesy of Caitlin Bailey, GFOE, Gulf of Mexico 2018.

This trip follows an expedition NOAA conducted last year to explore the Gulf of Mexico. On this most recent trip, the scientists sought to explore deep coral and sponge communities, bottom fish habitats, undersea canyons, shipwrecks, and a rich variety of ecosystems on the seafloor.

source
Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018.

See images from the previous expedition in December 2017.


The scientists used remotely -operated submersibles, like the Deep Discoverer pictured here, to access the deepest parts of the Gulf and to film and photograph rarely seen species.

source
Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018.

Here’s a submersible in action, surveying the edge of the Florida Escarpment, which plunges off the edge of Florida into the depths.

source
Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018.

While scientists sought out the pitch-black depths, they also surveyed shallower waters, like this coral reef 20 feet below the Florida Keys.

source
Image courtesy of Captain Adam Brynes, NOAA.

The scientists were astounded by the behavior of some the creatures they witnessed. Here, a sea cucumber swims thousands of feet below the surface.

source
Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018

One scientist compared the footage of the sea cucumber swimming to a “ballet.” Scientists are now trying to understand how these creatures can regulate their buoyancy to move freely about the water column.


Scientists also witnessed this balloon-like sea cucumber swimming around. You can see organs through its translucent tissue.

source
Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018.

This unidentified squid stumped the researchers. A cephalopod expert aboard the ship described it as “probably the most bizarre squid I’ve ever seen.”

source
Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018.

The scientists still aren’t sure why the squid adopted this seemingly defensive position. They think it could be because of an injury, as the squid seemed to have some tentacles missing, though they can’t be sure because this particular species has never been observed alive before.

source
Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018.

The researchers also came across strange sea stars on their dives, some of which had never been recorded in the Atlantic ocean before.

source
Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018.

The sea stars have pointed tube feet to help them scuttle quickly across the sediment, and they tend to congregate near seamounts.

source
Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018.

Check out a video of this sea star scuttling around 10,000 feet below the surface.


This rarely seen sea star is thought to be one of the oldest sea star species in existence. Scientists found evidence that these sea stars were present in the Jurassic era as fossils, meaning the species is hundreds of millions of years old.

source
Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018.

Source.


Sea stars, like many bottom-dwelling creatures, have a voracious appetite. Here, this one consumes a translucent glass sponge.

source
Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018.

It’s a strange, alien scene from another world.

source
Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018.

Like their shallow-water counterparts, corals form splendid reefs thousands of feet below the surface.

source
Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018.

They’re often just as colorful too, as evidenced by this brilliant purple octocoral.

source
Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018.

Octocorals are common in deep-sea environments. Corals are really a collection of tiny creatures called polyps — these polyps each bear eight tentacles and share a stomach, giving the octocoral its name.

caption
One of the most commonly observed organisms on Dive 05 was this sea pen, an Umbellula species with four large polyps. This is a type of octocoral, a colonial animal with polyps that bear eight tentacles. The black spots in the center of each polyp are the mouths. The polyps are joined at the base, share a stomach, and there is an internal skeleton in the long rod that attaches to the bottom. This animal is specialized to live in soft sediments and stays in place by inserting a bulb into the sediment.
source
Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018.

These octocorals provide a habitat for squat lobsters, a deep water lobster species.

source
Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018.

Scientists think that certain species of these corals are often associated with specific species of lobster, but more research needs to be done.


Here’s another example of a coral, with a different species of squat lobster using it as a safe haven.

source
Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research.

Like their shallow-water brethren, these deep-sea corals are filter feeders, positioning themselves in prime locations to catch plankton.

caption
This bamboo coral (Keratoisis sp.) was oriented perpendicular to the current, which can be advantageous to polyps in order to catch plankton
source
Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018.

This bubblegum coral attached itself to a vertical rock face over 8,500 feet below the surface, proving life can thrive under even the most difficult circumstances.

caption
A bubblegum coral grows from the vertical face of a rock at 2,614 meters (~8,575 feet) depth in the De Soto Canyon region.
source
NOAA Okeanos Explorer

Beyond corals, the scientists caught magnificent photos of some truly bizarre deep sea dwellers, like this cusk eel. The eel hunts by resting in the sediment — it’s large eyes help it spot prey swimming above it in the dark.

source
Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018.

This lobster is completely blind, spending most of its life in burrows in the sediment. This one was caught outside at around 2,215 feet down.

source
Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018

Skates cruise above the sediment looking for prey. This one has a parasitic isopod — a pill-bug-like creature — attached.

source
Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018.

This grumpy looking fish is a goosefish, caught on camera around 2,100 feet below the surface. The goosefish uses the lures seen between its eyes to help capture its prey.

A goosefish (Lophiodes beroe) was observed at ~640 meters (~2,100 feet). These fish are fairly common at about 600 - 800 meters (~1,970 - 2,625 feet) deep. A type of anglerfish, the lures are visible in the center of its face.

source
Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018.

This long-legged shrimp, like the blind lobster, prefers to spend its time in burrows. This one was captured cruising around the sediment at over 9,000 feet down.

source
Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018.

This little guy is a Western roughy, which is one of the longest-living deepwater fish species. It’s found all along the coast of North America, from Nova Scotia to the Gulf of Mexico.

caption
Western roughy (Hoplostethus occidentalis).
source
Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018

The researchers observed some especially weird octopus behavior. These two appear to be wrestling for den space underneath an old shipwreck.

source
NOAA Okeanos Explorer

To see the full video of the octopus fight, which the researchers dubbed a ‘Kraken Attack.’


The loser, pictured here, attempts to bury beneath the sediment after its defeat.

caption
A Muusoctopus johnsonianus octopus was observed burying into the sediment near the survey area
source
Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018.

Scientists identified this long, narrow squid as a Echinoteuthis atlantica, a common deep-sea dweller found in the Atlantic.

source
mage courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018.

Among the most bizarre deep sea dwellers are these ctenophores, or jellyfish. This one, found with its tentacles fully extended around 4,790 feet deep, almost looks like something out of Star Wars.

source
Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018.

One of the least understood environments in the deep, these brine pools are areas where extremely saline water sinks to the bottom. The brine pools kill the surrounding shellfish.

source
Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018.

You can see the dead mussels surrounding the pool. The pools form because the salty water is denser than the surrounding water, so it sinks to the lowest point.


These tubeworms employ a unique strategy to survive on the seafloor. In the absence of any sunlight, they use bacteria stored within their organs to convert hydrogen sulfide into the sugars and amino acids needed for life.

source
Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018.

Beyond surveying the rich marine life, the team explored previously unidentified shipwrecks, some of which had sat for decades on the seafloor.

source
Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018.

On the first dive, the ROV came across this tugboat, named New Hope. The tug went down during a severe tropical storm in 1965, and though the ship was lost, the Coast Guard managed to save everyone on board.

source
Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018.

Shipwrecks can often be a cornucopia of marine life. Here, a deepwater red crab sits on the tug. These crabs are a commercially harvested species.

source
Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018.

Here, a plastic milk jug dangles from the wreck. Even in the most remote environments, there are still signs of humanity.

source
Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018.

Even in the most remote environments, there are still unfortunate signs of humanity, though this bottle has been repurposed as a habitat for anemones.

caption
When we reached the bottom at nearly 1,600 meters (~5,250 feet) on Dive 03, one of the first things we observed was a plastic bag with anemones on it.
source
NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018