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 beautiful, in a bizarre and otherwordly way. But of course, strange and lovely as they are, Truffula tree corals and lumpy lobsters aren't the reason why this particular Alaska Seascape mission has captured the public's attention. Back on August 30, toward the beginning of the mission, the researchers happened upon an especially strange sight: a mysterious golden "orb" of sorts, resting on the side of an unexplored underwater volcano, a hole ripped in the specimen's fleshy side.
The object — it was widely described as an orb in the media, but might more accurately be termed a fleshy lump — was puzzling then, and remains so now.
"Even from far away, [we were] like, 'what do we have here?'" Candio recalled. We caught the scientist shortly after NOAA had submerged its ROV for the day's exploration, and he was monitoring the live feed as we spoke. "I immediately thought sponge, because you see a lot of those at these depths. But getting closer, it looked less and less spongy."
NOAA used its ROV's robotic arms to collect the specimen and soon shipped it to the lab, but even after a preliminary lab study, its origin remains unclear. That it's likely an egg casing of some kind seems to be a leading theory among researchers, but no one can be certain until its DNA has been sequenced. Even then, given the uncharted nature of the habitat, it's possible we still won't know.
As it turns out, finding new and strange things isn't uncommon for expeditions of this kind. In fact, according to Candio, until the media picked up the story, most of the researchers "kind of forgot" about the finding. To them, it's all in a day's work.
"We see weird stuff every dive — that wasn't even the most interesting thing that jumped out at us at that time," said Candio, adding that a "lot of what we see, we just don't know what it is." (Asked what was the most interesting thing on the dive, the scientist excitedly explained that they'd seen two mother octopi breeding their young, and when the ROV moved in closely, researchers were able to catch a miraculous glimpse of tiny octopi still trapped inside of their clear eggs, tentacles and all.)
"Everybody's saying, 'how unusual is this?'" the researcher continued, stopping briefly mid-sentence to witness the discovery of yet another octopus, in real-time, this one also caring for her eggs. "My question is, how do you or I know what is usual or unusual down there when we really just don't have any information? It's like being dropped in the city and walking down one block, and then saying you know everything about the world from what you saw on that one block and one city."
Other deep-sea researchers echoed a similar refrain.
"Because so little of the deep ocean is explored, each time we go to new areas of the deep sea we find new creatures," Dr. Amy Baco-Taylor, an Associate Professor in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at Florida State University, who is not involved with NOAA's Alaskan expedition, told us over email. "Sometimes they are beautiful and highly photogenic like deep-sea corals or hydrothermal vents. Other times they are creepy and weird like this object."
Asked to speculate on the origin of the object, Baco-Taylor agreed that "from its color and appearance, I would agree with the other scientists' initial guesses that it was a dead sponge." But the texture, she added, "doesn't seem right," and "an egg case of some sort is the next most likely option." An expert in seamounts and deep-sea corals, Baco-Taylor also noted that the maybe-egg happens to be surrounded by a field of sponges — a common nursery ground for deep-sea critters.
"The egg-like object helps to highlight the role that corals and sponges play in the deep sea by providing habitat for a wide diversity of invertebrates and fishes," she said. "If it is an egg, it will be exciting to find out what laid it, perhaps a species that is new to science!"
It's still unclear why, exactly, the public has been so enraptured by the discovery. Of course, "mysterious golden egg found at undersea volcano" is just intrinsically fascinating, and the researchers' colorful livestream commentary — as was first reported by The Miami Herald, one NOAA scientist remarked when the orb was spotted that finding it was "like the start of a horror movie," while another quipped that it looked "like something had tried to get in... or get out" — probably worked to bolster the eeriness of the finding.
"Maybe we shouldn't have been talking about aliens on [the livestream]," Candio confessed with a smile. "But it's fun to play along, you know?"
But like outer space, our unexplored oceans hold a particular lure, especially at these lightless depths. Without the Sun to provide energy, life there is as close to alien as any on Earth can get; it's a planet within a planet, and the scientific community has hardly scratched the surface.
"I think a lot of people have this misconception that scientists aren't people and that they know everything," said Candio. "And that's why people get frustrated when science changes or when people learn new things."
But now, scientists worldwide are preparing to get to work. As Candio explained it during our call, the orb will soon be shipped to the National Museum to be archived. Once there, interested researchers from around the world will have access to it, and will be able to contribute, piece by piece, to understanding the discovery. It's incredibly collaborative — basically, a global science project.
Fingers crossed that this global project soon delivers some answers, because like everyone else, we're dying to know from whence this orb came. In the meantime, NOAA's Alaskan mission will continue, as will other exploratory expeditions, and the more we explore the deep sea, the more we'll surely find — and hopefully, the more collective wonder we'll experience in turn.
"Ocean exploration and exploration in general touches on a human desire to learn," said Candio. "People get so locked into the day-to-day and forget how much wonder and fantasy there is out there." And as for the orb itself, according to the scientist, its discovery "brings more attention to the vastness of the oceans — how little we know," he added, "and how much there is left to learn."
More on the unidentified golden orb: Scientists Recovered That Golden "Orb" From the Bottom of the Ocean and It Looks Different Now
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