The exploration vessel Nautilus is a ship with no true home port. That is because the purpose of the E/V Nautilus is to explore, tasked with a mission of navigating the depths of the sea and the search for new species. The fact that between 86 percent to 99.9 percent of Earth’s species are unnamed and undiscovered makes the ship’s traversing of the world’s oceans all the more important.
The 17 member crew and rotating 31 science team use remotely operated vehicles, high-resolution seafloor mapping, and the real-time satellite transmission of data to search down to the depths of 13,000 feet.
Katelyn Standerfer, a chemistry teacher who was chosen to be one of the 30 teachers aboard the E/V Nautilus this summer, distilled her experience in the Santa Barbara Independent as one of wonder:
“Lying just below the surface off the coast of Santa Barbara lives an ecosystem unlike any in the world. As an avid scuba diver, I’ve explored the waters around our Channel Islands countless times, but I’ve never seen the organisms and geology that I saw during my stay aboard the Nautilus. They simply took my breath away.”
An important part of the E/V Nautilus journey is communicating to the outside world the bizarre and beautiful things the team comes across. Sometimes what they find is simply delightful: Think of the video of the “real life emoji” that made its viral rounds earlier in August; a stubby squid with cartoonish googly eyes — and other times, completely mystifying. Here are some of the other creatures the E/V Nautilus has come across in the ocean depths:
1. The rare sperm whale encounter
One of the best parts of watching E/V Nautilus footage is the commentary from the scientists and exploration team watching the feed. These people get stoked. When the ship’s ROV had an unexpected encounter with a massive sperm whale the exclamations of “Oh my goodness what is that!” and “He’s gonna bump you!” and “Oh man, this is so neat!” really make this a delightful thing to watch.
The team came across this sperm whale in the Gulf of Mexico at about 1,962 feet below the surface. Encounters between sperm whales and ROVs are typically very rare — meaning that this footage is particularly unique. This sperm whale spends some time circling the Hercules ROV — a neutrally buoyant machine designed to be able to conduct scientific experiments up to 2.5 miles deep into the water.
2. The mysterious purple orb
In July the E/V Nautilus ROV came across this purple blob near the Channel Islands, completing stumping the team. Realizing that they had something special in their hands, the team uses their machinery to suck it right up for evaluation. Today scientists at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology are still working to find out if it is a new species. The hypothesis right now is that it is a pleurobranch (essentially a type of sea slug) but it could take several years before the scientists can say anything for sure. Here you can see the discovery — and one very confused crab.
3. The beautiful basket star
Also off the coast of the Channel Islands the team came across this spindly, bubble-gum pink basket star. Related to the brittle star, this deep sea creature looks more like an alien tangle of vines than an animal.
This one is a bit unusual because basket stars are usually perched on a rock or some coral. The arms of this invertebrate can measure up to a meter long, each arm equipped with tiny sharp hooks that allow it to capture zooplankton to snack on.
4. The bizarre benthic siphonophores
Yet another find from the Channel Islands trip was multiple encounters with benthic siphonophores. Benthic refers to the ecological region at the lowest level of a body of water — these guys are deep. Siphonophores, invertebrates first discovered in 1876, may look like a fluffy, gunky single organism but they are actually a colony of individual multicellular animals called zooids.
While these animals are definitely buoyant, they are able to live so deep because of their long, nearly translucent tentacles that tether them to the ocean’s floor.
5. The rare neon flying squid
In 2015, off the coast of the Caribbean island Montserrat, the E/V Nautilus had an extremely rare view of a neon flying squid. It swooshes past the ROV, leaving everyone with 37 seconds of wtf.
For decades, the idea that oceanic squids could fly was assumed to be a seafaring myth. But the behavior was finally confirmed in a 2013 study in Marine Biology journal — through the use of “jet propulsion” neon squids can push themselves out of the water and become airborne. It’s a launching, jetting, gliding, and diving process that involves shooting a jet of water at a high propulsion, leaving the squid to glide up to 36 feet per second.
6. The cute flapjack octopus
This flapjack octopus was encountered in June off the central Californian coast. The deep-sea cephalopod uses its head fins along with the pulsing of its tentacles to move around the ocean floor and is known to be found off the coasts of California and Japan. While it’s official name is Opisthoteuthis californiana the cuteness of the critter led scientists to lead a 2015 effort to properly name it Opisthoteuthis adorabilis instead.
7. The creepy chimaera
The creature here is a chimaera, also known as a ratfish or ghost shark. Distantly related to sharks and rays, chimaeras have cartilaginous skeletons and large, dull-colored eyes. It’s also definitely something that seems more out of a nightmare than Finding Nemo. Sometimes these videos may make you want to grab your snorkel and dive into the sea. This is not one of those times.