The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Australian scientists went looking for deep sea creatures and pulled up your nightmares instead

Australian scientists went looking for deep sea creatures and pulled up your nightmares instead. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

Two-and-a-half miles below the ocean near Australia, there is crushing pressure, total darkness and a collection of some of the strangest creatures on the planet — if you're willing to go find them.

Scientists haven't heavily explored these areas, in part because they're places on Earth that are among the most inhospitable to humans.

But recently, an international team of scientists sponsored by Museums Victoria and a government research organization spent a month trawling the ocean floor off the Aussie Coast trying to figure out what lives down there — and how they've adapted to survive.

For scientists, the finds are beginning to shed light on the dramatic evolution of creatures in extreme environments. They've possibly identified a new fish and found animals living at lower depths than recorded.

For the rest of us, the photos of the findings offer something different: seawater-scented nightmare fuel.

Take, for example:

That's a spiny red crab, although good luck figuring out whether that's the back end or the front. It's one of the few brightly colored things the scientists pulled out of Australia's eastern abyss, although it's closer to the hermit crab at the bottom of a fish tank than to anything on the menu at a seafood restaurant.

Although there is a clear advantage in being covered in dozens of thorny spikes, many of the creatures the Australian scientists pulled out of the ocean were sans spikes. In fact, they could be summed up with one adjective: gelatinous.

For example, the investigators are trying to determine whether the coffinfish they found is a new species. It has blue eyes and red fins and an interesting trick for catching prey in the dark. It uses a “fishing rod tipped with a fluffy bait on top of its head.”

When a hungry, unsuspecting fish approaches the “food,” it becomes the coffinfish's meal instead.

Another unorthodox eater that the scientists found was a cookie-cutter shark. The shark has been documented before, but not in the areas where the marine national facility research vessel Investigator traveled in the past month.

The shark sets its sights on big game — whales, large fish, even dolphins — and latches onto them with its serrated rows of teeth.

Then it rips out a chunk of flesh and swims away.

And then there's the “faceless” fish, which hasn't been seen by humans in more than 140 years, according to the researchers. It has no easily distinguishable eyes or gills and a mouth opening that is on the bottom of its body — the world's slimiest torpedo.

An international team of scientists spent a month trawling the ocean floor off the Australian coast trying to figure out what creatures live down there and how they've adapted to survive. (Video: Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation)

Raising these creatures from the depths took some advanced technology to overcome the environmental hurdles.

The scientists used multi-beam sonar to avoid bashing their pricey gear into rocks, then they trawled the ocean floor, having no idea what they'd nabbed until it breached the ocean's surface. It's a slow and tedious process. Lowering equipment to the ocean floor on a two-mile-long rope can take hours.

[A revered sea turtle was offered coins as a blessing. She ate them all and nearly died.]

The scientists pulled up more than a thousand sea creatures, which will be studied and catalogued in the months to come, then gaped at by Australian schoolchildren.

They also raised the alarm about the most disturbing thing they uncovered: pounds and pounds of trash. Humans have rarely made it to these depths, the scientists said, but our garbage has.

“We have found highly concerning levels of rubbish on the sea floor,” Chief Scientist Tim O'Hara said in a news release.

“We're 100 kilometres off Australia's coast, and have found PVC pipes, cans of paints, bottles, beer cans, wood chips, and other debris from the days when steamships plied our waters. The seafloor has 200 years of rubbish on it.”

Jérôme Mallefet, a researcher with the National Science Foundation of Belgium, is studying why, how and where marine animals glow in the dark. (Video: Marine Biodiversity Hub)

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