Marine scientists aboard the E/V Nautilus, a research vessel that prowls the high seas in search of oceanic discoveries, have stumbled upon the rare skeletal remains of 16-foot long whale. With bits of flesh still clinging to the bones, the dead whale has attracted an assortment of strange sea critters, including worms, octopuses, and eels. Even cooler, they’re livestreaming the feeding frenzy.
Virtually nothing is wasted in nature. When a large whale dies and falls to the seafloor, for example, its carcass becomes a veritable Jacobean banquet for the many bottom feeders in search of a quick meal. But when whales fall below depths of 1,000 meters (3,300 feet), they enter into a completely alien environment—one featuring no light, intense water pressure, and virtually no oxygen. At these depths, the carcass is exposed to an assortment of sea critters that are specially adapted to live—and find food—at these extreme depths.
One such whale fall was discovered on Wednesday by researchers aboard the Nautilus. The vessel is operated by the Ocean Exploration Trust and frequently livestreams remote operated vehicle dives with scientists’ commentary. The team was wrapping up exploratory work in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of California when they stumbled upon the carcass at a depth of 3,200 meters (10,500 feet). The whale fall is located near the Davidson Seamount in the Pacific Ocean.
The camera aboard the remotely operated vehicle captured stunningly clear footage of the skeleton, which is being scavenged by numerous sea creatures, including bone-eating worms, eels, crustaceans, like crabs and squat lobsters, anthropods, and octopuses.
There’s still lots of fleshy tissue on the whale’s bones, and based on that, the researchers estimate it likely died four months ago. The researchers also posit from looking at its orientation that it’s lying on its back.
The exact species of whale is yet to be determined, but the researchers suspect it’s either a grey whale or a minke whale. If it’s a grey whale, the team would very much like to know if its demise had anything to do with the recent Pacific grey whale mortality event, which scientists think is being caused by diminished access to food resources.
Another possibility is that the whale was killed by a passing ship, though the researchers aboard the Nautilus didn’t identify any cracks or other signs of trauma. Using the ROV, the researchers are in the process of collecting samples for further study. The researchers are likely to pay particular attention to the baleen, jaw, and other aspects of the whale’s decayed, scavenged anatomy.
The team will make these samples available to other researchers. Some researchers, for example, would like to study the amount of oxygen available in this water, as animal remains take longer to decay in oxygen-poor environments. The samples could also shed new light on bone-eating worms, and the kinds of nutrients they’re able to extract from the skeleton.
While the dead whale is clearly what the creatures on the bottom of the sea are most interested, at least one has also found the remote operated vehicle of interest. One of the octopuses decided to hitch a ride.