A camera pans the craggy Pacific Ocean floor. A crab lies motionless, its spindly legs sprawled into the dirt.
From under a rock overhang, there’s a glimmer of purple.
“Do you have that dark purple blob on the left?” asks a scientist, one of eight controlling a remotely operated underwater robot, to which the camera is attached.
“Purple blob,” one replies.
“Oh … what is that?”
“I actually have no idea. I have no idea what that is.”
The scientists watching the blob were part of a crew on the exploration vessel Nautilus, operated by the Ocean Exploration Trust. Earlier this month, they were navigating the tectonically active areas of the Channel Islands off the coast of California, when they came across a mysterious organism. Their surprised and confused first impressions were captured on video.
“This unidentified purple orb stumped our scientists onboard,” the team wrote on their website.
In the video, the camera zooms in, and the blob, a few inches in diameter, comes sharply into view. A gasp is heard. Then, murmurs from the crew who are momentarily stunned by the alien-like orb.
Set against the murky sea floor, the purple is electric. It seems to radiate energy, like a pulsar in deep space. The center glows a soft pink. The orb floats, fixed in place, while white specks flit around it. It’s a tiny universe, encased in purple.
“Blobus purpulus,” someone says, making up a faux-scientific name for the strange creature.
The team was exploring the Channel Islands, an eight-island archipelago formed five million years ago by tectonic forces. Though the islands sit just 60 miles from Los Angeles, they are extremely isolated. So much so, that they are often called the “Galapagos of North America.”
When nature is left alone, it can behave in odd and wonderful ways. After thousands of years of isolation, there are 145 plant and animal species that call the Channel Islands their home, and live nowhere else in the world.
They wondered, could the purple blob be number 146?
On camera, the purple blob continues to hang, suspended just above the sea floor. It’s almost a perfect sphere, with a bumpy surface, like a neon miniature golf ball lost at the bottom of a lake.
The scientists, still mesmerized, start to speculate. Maybe, it’s a tunicate, commonly known as a sea squirt. It would have to be the planktonic kind that is lumpy and thick, one says. What if it’s an egg sac of some sort? Could that be an embryo inside?
“I don’t know if it’s squishy,” another says. “It might be squishy.”
The crew decides they’re going to take it. Their underwater vehicle has a suction arm that can slurp up any specimen for a closer look. “Are we going to grab it?” Yes, they are.
Suddenly, the crab darts back onto the scene. It scuttles under the overhang, knocking up plumes of dirt. It hits the orb with one of its spiky legs.
“Oh, the crab might get it!” “Oh, no!”
But after the collision, the orb remains still. Now is the team’s chance. They shine lasers around the blob’s edges to make sure it’s small enough to fit in the suction. “It looks like a disco ball right now, with the lasers next to it.”
A sharp pull of air, and the orb is sucked into the robot. The scientists hurry to get a closer look. They discover it’s flat on the bottom, and maybe hollow? “Maybe it’s a sponge?”
But in the moment, the orb eludes concrete definition. The video ends and the orb is just another enigma of the deep sea.
According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), only five percent of the ocean has been properly explored. We’ve seen even less of the ocean floor. Large areas have been mapped, but only at low resolutions.
“If our questions are: ‘What does it look like down there?’ or: ‘What’s going on down there?’ Then, the area that has been ‘explored’ is arguably even less than the 0.05% mapped so far at the very highest resolution by sonar,” Jon Copley, an Associate Professor of Marine Ecology at University of Southampton wrote in the Conversation. The charting of the sea floor around the Channel Islands is under 50 percent complete.
There’s been more mapping, at better quality, on the surfaces of Mars, Venus, and the moon. On Venus, 98 percent of the surface has been mapped, and the complete surfaces of the moon and Mars have been mapped at a decent resolution. That makes the habitat of the strange purple blob even less understood than the reaches of outer space.
In an announcement after the mission, which lasted from July 3 to 21, the team said they had come to some agreement on the orb. After examining it closely, they found the blob unfolded to reveal two distinct lobes, they wrote. They’re still working with the Harvard Museum of Comparative Biology, but they think it’s most likely a pleurobranch, a close relation to the nudibranch. Both are types of sea slugs, a kind of underwater invertebrate that vaguely resembles slugs on land.
So, is the puzzle solved?
For those who wish to remain entrenched in the mysteries of the deep sea a little bit longer, take comfort in this: Currently none of the known species of California deep-sea pleurobranchs are purple. It could take years to determine if it’s a new species.
“If we’re still discovering new species on the shore,” Jeff Goddard, a marine scientist who studies nudibranchs and soft corals at the University of California at Santa Barbara, told Smithsonian, “just imagine what’s in the deep sea off the coast.”