Talk about fortuitous: On the final dive of the E/V Nautilus’ expedition season yesterday, during a live-stream no less, researchers stumbled across a rare discovery on the seafloor. As their camera penetrated the depths of the Davidson Seamount off central California’s coast, the skeletal remains of a whale came into view, to the team’s audible excitement.
“It’s a whale fall, whale fall…? WHALE FALL!” can be heard from the rapturous crew as they realized what they were looking at. A whale fall is when a whale carcass sinks to the bottom of the ocean and comes to rest on the seafloor, supporting a whole new ecosystem, and providing quite the banquet for a range of deep-sea beasties.
“Dinner is served,” as one team member put it.
Whale falls are pretty uncommon to come across. However, it's even rarer to come across one that hasn’t already been picked clean. Most of the time, if researchers do manage to stumble across one, it has been resting on the seafloor for years. This one, which was found at a depth of 3,238 meters (10,500 feet) in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, appears to be relatively recent as it still has some soft tissue, blubber, and internal organs remaining.
Curiously, as the researchers point out, the carcass seems to be between stages of ecological succession, as large scavengers like eelpouts (eel-shaped fish) were spotted snacking on the blubber, while bone-eating worms had already started consuming the fats from the bones.
Other deep-sea creatures that joined in the feast included grenadiers, crabs, and at one point, at least 15 deep-sea octopuses.
Octopuses are mostly predators, but as one researcher said, “why not be opportunistic?”
As another put it: “Where food is so limited, scavenging is a great strategy... your food doesn’t run away.”
The whale is estimated to be around 4-5 meters (13-16 feet) long, and its baleen can still be seen, though the researchers haven’t clarified what species of whale it is yet. Baleen is the filter feed system of hair-like "teeth" inside the mouths of baleen whales like blue, humpback, right, and gray whales. When the whale opens its mouth and takes in great gulps of water, it uses its tongue to push the water back out, and the filter traps tiny creatures like krill, which get left behind as snacks.
Baleen is actually made out of keratin, the same stuff as your fingernails, hair, and animals' claws, horns, and hooves, and will eventually degrade.
The E/V Nautilus is a research vessel operated by the Ocean Exploration Trust that has spent the last five years sailing the oceans, and is just finishing this year's season exploring the Pacific. The crew regularly share their findings via live-stream from their two remotely operated vehicles, Hercules and Argus, delighting the world with the weird and wonderful elusive creatures they come across, from piglet squids to newly discovered species.
Check out the exciting moment of discovery here.