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Book Showcases Previously Unseen Sea Creatures

July 16, 2007 at 6:35 PM EST
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SPENCER MICHELS: While the deep sea has long tantalized humans, it’s only been in the last century that exploration has been technically possible. And only recently have scientists started realizing the immensity of what lies far below the surface.

French wildlife producer and journalist Claire Nouvian became obsessed with life in the deep ocean about five years ago, after a visit to California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium. She started going on ocean expeditions, and she began to collect photographs taken by scientists of life that exists in darkness far below the surface.

She’s put 200 of the most spectacular into a new book called “The Deep,” photos of exotic and never-before-seen animals: a rare jellyfish; an almost cute octopus; heat-loving worms; and a variety of scary-looking fish. Many of these creatures have not even been named, they are so newly discovered.

CLAIRE NOUVIAN, Author, “The Deep”: That’s really where we come from. Life originated in the water.

SPENCER MICHELS: I talked with her in an underwater observation tunnel at San Francisco’s Aquarium of the Bay.

CLAIRE NOUVIAN: I had been doing wildlife films, so I thought I knew what animals were pretty much like on this planet, and I was really amazed to see that there was this huge chunk of my wildlife culture that was missing. I just was really stunned. I mean, my mind was blown.

SPENCER MICHELS: Scientists long suspected that the deep contained a wealth of unseen life, but they had little proof. Now, evolving technologies, including both unmanned and manned submersible vehicles able to withstand crushing undersea pressure, have resulted in the first high-definition photos of some of those species.

CLAIRE NOUVIAN: One of the big surprises for me was to find that there was a different group of octopods, sort of octopuses, and they’re finned. So they have very large fins around the head, so they look like very large ears, right? So they’re very often called Dumbo octopuses. And that’s one of the Dumbos. Obviously, it’s very popular with kids, because it looks like a Pokemon.

Millions of new species

Steve Haddock
Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
If you talk to people who work on jellyfish, you find out that a lot of them actually end up being photographers. And it's almost a requirement, because most of these animals, once you get them up on deck, you can't preserve them.

SPENCER MICHELS: Water makes up 70 percent of the Earth's surface, with ocean depth averaging more than two miles, a huge habitat that scientists say may contain from 10 million to 30 million new species.

Steve Haddock, a marine biologist with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, took many of the photos in Nouvian's book. He and other MBARI scientists use unmanned, remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs, tethered to a surface ship to explore and photograph deep canyons off Monterey on the California coast.

STEVE HADDOCK, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute: With a remotely operated vehicle, we may have 12 scientists there watching, experiencing the dive simultaneously. So we can have an expert on squid and an expert on jellyfish there, kind of weighing in on what they're seeing. And we have high-definition video now, and we have the ability to collect these really fragile animals in excellent shape.

SPENCER MICHELS: Haddock says ocean researchers have to be good, quick photographers.

STEVE HADDOCK: If you talk to people who work on jellyfish, you find out that a lot of them actually end up being photographers. And it's almost a requirement, because most of these animals, once you get them up on deck, you can't preserve them. They're so fragile that you can't just pick them and put them on a shelf and study them later.

SPENCER MICHELS: He snapped the picture of a two-inch-long creature called an arrow worm.

STEVE HADDOCK: Supposedly one of the second most abundant organisms out there in the ocean, but, you know, probably seems pretty foreign to most people.

SPENCER MICHELS: What is it? It's a worm?

STEVE HADDOCK: It's a little worm, and they have hooks up here that they use to catch prey. They actually have tetradotoxin. They have the puffer fish paralyzing toxin in those hooks. This one broods. These little sacks on the side are -- each little dash inside that sack is an embryo, so it broods its young.

CLAIRE NOUVIAN: There's an animal that's called Magnapinna. It's a huge squid. It's very strange. It looks geometrical, like its arms are capable of doing very square angles, which is very uncommon. The animals are invertebrate, so you're not expecting that.

Life around hydrothermal vents

Claire Nouvian
Author, "The Deep"
[T]hese animals can live in an environment that's extremely hot. They live right on the chimneys where the fumes are coming out...from this very hot, hot chimneys, like up to even 400 degrees Celsius.

SPENCER MICHELS: One of the animals that intrigued me was a fish that had its teeth on the outside, kind of long, spindly teeth that seemed to be a problem for this fish. He could die because of his own anatomy.

CLAIRE NOUVIAN: It's a viper fish. And they have very long, long teeth that don't fit inside, so obviously they have to bear them outside, because they will cut their own palate otherwise. And he caught an animal that was -- had impaled an animal too large for him, so he couldn't swallow it. And, of course, being on the outside, he couldn't get rid of it either.

SPENCER MICHELS: Many of the photos in "The Deep" zero in on life around hydrothermal vents and so called "black smokers," where new species continue to be discovered.

And what about this one?

CLAIRE NOUVIAN: This is an animal that's very interesting. It's called Alvinella. It's a worm that's adapted to chemosynthetic environments, like the one that were filmed with Rutgers University and "Volcanoes of the Deep Sea."

So these animals can live in an environment that's extremely hot. They live right on the chimneys where the fumes are coming out, where all the nickel, you know, sulfur, fumes are coming out from this very hot, hot chimneys, like up to even 400 degrees Celsius, and are able to get their food from the environment that's very, you know, loaded with chemicals.

Adaptation to sea conditions

Roy Caldwell
University of California
What's probably more important is understanding the ecosystems, and how they work, and how they're tied together with other life on this planet.

SPENCER MICHELS: Such adaptation to deep sea conditions, says Roy Caldwell, professor of integrated biology at the University of California, adds to our understanding of evolution, but that's far from the only thing scientists are looking at.

ROY CALDWELL, University of California, Berkeley: There are physical forces at work that are going to shape the life that lives in them. We know we're in a world which most of it has no light, so we can look at the evolution of the use of light systems, of bioluminescence. What's probably more important is understanding the ecosystems, and how they work, and how they're tied together with other life on this planet.

SPENCER MICHELS: But part of Nouvian's concern, shared with researchers, is more immediate: that even the dark, mysterious world of the deep ocean is in danger as fishermen go ever deeper as the surface fishery becomes depleted.

CLAIRE NOUVIAN: We're already starting to use these resources as fish stock for ourselves, human beings. And I think it's putting pressure on these animals, because they don't have the same rhythm at all as surface animals.

They grow over a long period of time; they reach sexual maturity much older than surface animals. And, also, deep sea fisheries use a method that's called bottom trawling, and so they trawl with very heavy nets on the ground. And they remove any other life that's there.

SPENCER MICHELS: The potential destruction also concerns Caldwell.

ROY CALDWELL: This is '50, '51, '52, '53.

SPENCER MICHELS: Jacques Cousteau's first book?

ROY CALDWELL: Yes.

SPENCER MICHELS: He says he got turned onto the deep sea as a boy by reading Jacques Cousteau's "Silent World." He hopes Nouvian's book, "The Deep," will have a similar effect on other people, but he worries if that undersea world will even survive.

ROY CALDWELL: We have no idea at how resilient those habitats are. We suspect they're not very resilient at all, and they may be lost.

A turning point

Claire Nouvian
Author, "The Deep"
We are moving from pure exploration, trying to find out, being completely overwhelmed by how much and how many new species there are out there, to really integrated, scientific approach.

SPENCER MICHELS: Well, this is a cold-blooded question, but let's assume that a lot of the animals were lost. Why should we care?

ROY CALDWELL: We actually do not have any idea how change in the food chain and the ecosystem will cascade back up to the surface. And it certainly will have effect on some fisheries and things of that nature, but it could actually go as far as affecting climate. We don't know. So it's incumbent upon us to learn as much as possible before we get there.

STEVE HADDOCK: And I sort of look forward to a time when we don't even have to ask, "Is it worth saving these or studying these, these things?" And that people appreciate that there's this whole world out there that really dwarfs the world that we live in. And so we probably shouldn't be just blindly dumping things in there without regard for what the effects are going to be.

SPENCER MICHELS: Deep sea research appears to be at a turning point, and the attention brought by popular nature films and by Nouvian's book may help in funding the next stage.

CLAIRE NOUVIAN: We are moving from pure exploration, trying to find out, being completely overwhelmed by how much and how many new species there are out there, to really integrated, scientific approach. So the big trend is deep sea observatories, really putting stations down there that are permanent and permanently recording data so as to be able to stitch all that data together and have a really big picture that will tell you exactly how it works.

SPENCER MICHELS: Nouvian and the scientists agree: The exploration of the deep ocean, for all the beauty it already has yielded, has scarcely begun.