Almost 1,500 feet below the surface, researchers are filming the Atlantic Ocean seabed using a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV). Yet in among the harmless fish, coral and sponges, something far more sinister is lurking. And as the team watch a school of sharks feasting on a swordfish carcass, a mysterious creature makes its deadly move.
The researchers had been exploring the ocean floor for 45 long minutes, watching live images beamed from the ROV. But then they stumbled upon a fresh carcass – one that drew creatures from far and wide to feast upon its flesh. And while fish, eels and crabs had all got involved, a band of sharks was really dominating the feeding frenzy.
The members of the dogfish family – with their beady eyes and wide mouths – dug in with ruthless abandon, in fact. But surprisingly, this was far from the most frightening thing that the team would discover in the depths below. As the predators continued to feast on the carcass, you see, another creature zoomed in to take the spotlight. And it made a shocking on-screen debut that the researchers will never forget.
After all, in the 21st century, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we know everything there is to know about planet Earth. Yet despite mankind conquering the world’s highest mountain peaks and exploring its remotest jungles, there are still hugely unexplored swathes. We’re talking mainly, of course, about the depths of the oceans that remain incredibly hazardous to humans.
In fact, it’s often said that we know more about outer space than the world beneath the waves. And with water making up over 70 percent of the Earth, there remain plenty of hidden secrets. With the help of scientists, though, we are finally beginning to unravel at least some of the mysteries of the sea.
Today, you see, scientists believe it is more important than ever to understand how the oceans and our climate are changing. So organizations such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) commit themselves to studying the dynamics of planet Earth. And what’s more, these firms often openly share their knowledge and findings.
But it’s the NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (OER) we are interested in on this occasion. Because this team of staff deal with exploring the secrets of the deep. And through studying the world beneath the waves, its researchers hope to safeguard the future of life on Earth.
“America’s future depends on understanding the ocean,” a statement on the OER’s website reads. “We explore the ocean because its health and resilience are vital to our economy and to our lives. We depend on the ocean to regulate weather and climate; sustain a diversity of life; for maritime shipping and national defense; and for food, energy, medicine, and other essential services to humankind.”
So on May 30, 2019, the NOAA launched an ocean expedition. It was part of the organization’s “Windows to the Deep 2019: Exploration of the Deep-sea Habitats of the Southeastern United States” studies. The dives would also occur in two stages and last 44 days in total – with the aim of improving knowledge surrounding largely misunderstood environments. Specifically, this would apply to the coastal areas of states such as North and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
According to the OER website, the purpose of this mission was manifold. So as well as studying locations where methane seeps through the seafloor, the researchers also hoped to find unusual sponge and coral ecosystems. Additionally, the team aimed to explore underwater canyons in the area and document any life that may have emerged within them.
Perhaps the most exciting objective, though, was the search for relics that lie scattered across this part of the Atlantic. “There is perhaps no greater potential for archaeological studies in U.S. waters than along the Eastern Seaboard,” the NOAA’s Joseph Hoyt wrote on the organization’s website. And it was in this region that the researchers hoped to uncover evidence of a rich maritime history.
“This expedition NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer affords a rare opportunity to search the seabed for these connections to our past,” Hoyt continued. “What could we find? A small coastal trader? A paddle wheel steamer? A massive steel oil tanker? All are possibilities, and all have the potential to focus our attention on a forgotten piece of our shared heritage.”
Before the expedition, you see, the NOAA had worked with fisheries and scientists to identify areas of interest off the southeastern coast. And during the first leg of the project, researchers worked on board the Okeanos Explorer to map out these regions. Then, a little over two weeks later, the experts moved on to the second leg of the project.
From June 20 onwards, then, the team began using a ROV to collect data from the seafloor. And eight days later, the researchers launched the seventh dive of the expedition – some 80 miles from the South Carolina coast. In fact, they dove to a depth of more than 650 feet in the hope of uncovering evidence of a long-lost shipwreck.
Yes, the team hoped to discover the remains of the American oil tanker SS Bloody Marsh. A German U-boat had apparently sunk the vessel in the waters off South Carolina during World War II. As the story goes, in fact, the ship had been en route to New York from Houston, Texas, in July 1943. Because of its potentially volatile cargo, then, the tanker was high on the NOAA’s wishlist of targets.
Sadly, though, the team couldn’t find the remains of the SS Bloody Marsh this time round. They did, however, discover an abundance of fascinating marine life while exploring the seafloor in the region. And soon the researchers switched the focus of this particular dive from wreck-hunting to biological and geological studies.
The expedition quickly began to turn up results too. In fact, the researchers identified a species of coral that had not been previously seen during earlier dives. This was a “stony” coral from the family hydrozoa. But it was what the team stumbled upon in the last 45 minutes of the dive that really caused a stir.
For, as we’ve seen, researchers watching live footage from the ROV spotted a cluster of sharks gathered around a swordfish carcass, which had sunk all the way to the ocean floor. The unfortunate creature had seemingly only recently died, though, and as many as 11 predators had started into its quickly-depleting remains.
According to the experts, the sharks in this free-for-all were actually representatives of two different species – both members of the Squalidae family. As well as a number of roughskin dogfish, which can grow to up to four feet, there were also numerous Genie’s dogfish. Interestingly, Genie’s dogfish were only discovered in 2018, when they were named after Dr. Genie Clark, a renowned marine scientist.
And the NOAA researchers believe that these dogfish had likely traveled long distances in order to feed on the dead swordfish. What’s more, the team suspect that the sharks’ tracking down of the carcass could have had something to do with vibrations or chemicals in the water. For example, the experts say the dogfish could have picked up on vibrations made while the swordfish struggled.
To add to this, researchers noted how the feast was a strong example of the marine food chain in action. What does that mean? Well, the swordfish, normally based either near the surface or at medium depths, died before traveling to the seabed. There, it became a worthy meal for creatures living at the bottom of the ocean.
The unusual sight of sharks feeding on a swordfish was far from the most exciting thing to take place, though. In fact, as the researchers watched the creatures feed, via the ROV, something incredible happened. That’s when, from the gloom outside the ROV’s light beam, a giant wreckfish sailed into view.
Typically found in deep water, wreckfish often lurk in underwater caves and among the remains of sunken ships. In fact, this is the reason for their evocative name. Mostly blue-gray in appearance, the marine fish display ridges of spiny fins along their upper sides and boast big heads. But let’s not forget to mention that wreckfish are equipped with equally cavernous mouths. And soon, the researchers would see first-hand just what damage this creature’s mighty jaws were capable of.
Normally, you see, wreckfish feed on migrating creatures such as squid and other fish. And with a plentiful supply, the creatures can actually grow to a staggering 6.5 feet in length and weigh a maximum of 220 pounds. They can also live as long as seven decades in the right conditions. What’s more, wreckfish have no predators that we know of.
At first glance, then, the researchers might not have thought the swordfish was an obvious source of nutrition for the wreckfish. In the footage, in fact, this particular creature doesn’t appear to want to join the feeding frenzy taking place among the sharks. But the clever predator seemingly has something entirely different in mind. And it didn’t concern going after dead flesh.
So as the researchers watch, the wreckfish swiftly emerges from the shadow of the ROV. Apparently, it had been using the vehicle as cover to approach the sharks, who remained unaware of its presence. And before anyone can register what is happening, the creature snatches up a dogfish in its powerful jaws.
The crew can see the tail of the doomed dogfish wriggling hopelessly in the predator’s jaws too. And perhaps unsurprisingly, they react to the incredible sight with awe. “Oh my God!” cries out one researcher. “Yes. It has a whole shark in its mouth… Wow, I’m going to remember this forever.”
It then became clear that the crew of Okeanos Explorer weren’t the only ones awestruck by the wreckfish’s feeding tactics. Because within weeks of being uploading to YouTube, the video footage had been viewed more than 1 million times. Writers for a number of online science websites were quick to draw attention to the staggering footage too.
Yet it’s not the first time that a predator has been caught on camera indulging in a surprising meal. In fact, in August 2014 the YouTube channel Gimbb14 published a video of a fisherman hooking a black tip shark. This had happened off the coast of Bonita Springs in Florida. But sadly, the angler’s triumph did not last for long.
In the clip, the fisherman attempts to reel in his four-foot catch – and then an ominous shadow rises up from the depths below. And suddenly, a massive grouper breaks the surface of the water, snatching the shark in one vicious bite. Then, as those on the boat react with amazement, both creatures quickly vanish beneath the waves.
It may surprise you to learn that this grouper video has been viewed more than 67 million times on YouTube. And apparently such ambitious meals are not unheard of where groupers are concerned. In fact, some four years later, a similar creature made the headlines in Everglades City. This is actually just about 50 miles from where the previous incident took place.
So, in July 2018, the Florida-based Everglades Fishing Company released a video from a recent excursion. And in it, a lucky angler can be seen landing a sizeable shark. Just as the catch is being reeled in, though, the shadow of another giant grouper appears nearby. But this time, Captain Jimmy Wheeler knows exactly what to expect.
“Watch this, you guys are going to freak out,” Wheeler warns his oblivious passengers in the clip. And suddenly, an Atlantic goliath grouper snatches the shark from the surface in one big gulp. According to those present, in fact, the massive fish weighed in at a staggering 500 pounds.
“He just sucked it in,” Wheeler’s wife, Michelle, explained in a 2018 interview with Fox News. “I don’t remember ever seeing anything this crazy.” The crew noted that the shark was not the grouper’s only big meal of the day, though. In fact, Wheeler himself later observed the same creature feasting on a stingray – or possibly a manta ray.
Unlike the wreckfish, goliath groupers are actually typically found in shallow waters of tropical regions. And usually they feast on a diet of smaller prey such as fish, crustaceans and octopodes. They have, however, been observed attacking larger creatures, such as lemon sharks and even human divers. Their size can be something to behold too.
Under the right conditions, in fact, goliath groupers can grow to more than eight feet long and can weigh almost 800 pounds. They are therefore becoming a nuisance for the fishermen who share the same waters. “They’re eating everything,” Michelle said. Yet goliath groupers are protected in Florida due to their dwindling populations – so it’s rightfully unlikely to be stopped anytime soon from indulging in large meals.
In this instance, however, the goliath grouper ultimately failed to make a meal of the struggling shark. After a brief struggle with the giant fish, in fact, the fisherman eventually persuaded the predator to relinquish its prey. Wheeler and his team actually hoped to release the unfortunate creature back into the sea.
But let’s get back to the NOAA team. After their wreckfish encounter, then, the experts continued to research the underwater habitats off the southeastern United States. And before the expedition finished on July 12, they actually completed a total of 19 dives. Those additional forays underwater also delivered a number of other highlights to the mission.
For example, on the expedition’s 17th dive, the researchers captured incredible footage of an octopus protecting her eggs. This is a job that the creature might actually still be undertaking up to four years down the line. And on their next trip beneath the surface, in Baltimore Canyon, the team stumbled upon an amazing collection of bubblegum coral. Eventually, though, the mission concluded with a visit to the Norfolk Seeps – an area where methane escapes through the seafloor.
But while the researchers gathered numerous fascinating insights, the encounter from their seventh outing remained the most dramatic. “Sometimes ‘sharks just happen,’” the University of Connecticut’s Peter J. Auster explained in a June 2019 post on the OER website. “You can’t plan on seeing these kinds of things, especially in the deep ocean. It is simply serendipity; by just spending enough time underwater and being prepared for the unexpected, you can stumble across scenes that will replay in your mind’s eye over and over for a lifetime.”