This Might Be the Longest Creature Ever Seen in the Ocean

Nerida Wilson couldn’t take her eyes off the computer screen. Some 2,000 feet beneath the research boat she was aboard, a creature drifted past in the shape of a vast, galactic swirl. By her team’s estimates, it was 150 feet long.

“It looked like an incredible U.F.O.,” said Dr. Wilson, a senior research scientist at the Western Australian Museum.

She and her colleagues documented this organism with the help of SuBastian, a remotely-piloted deep-sea robot, during a March expedition on the Falkor, a research vessel operated by the Schmidt Ocean Institute. Their mission was to understand what lives in the deep waters off Australia’s western edge. And the coiling stringy mass they had just found was a siphonophore, the first spotted off Western Australia and potentially the longest organism in the sea.

The longest previously-known marine creature is the lion’s mane jellyfish — its tentacles can be up to 120 feet long. By comparison, blue whales, while the most massive creatures ever to have lived, are nearly 100 feet long.

“What’s fascinating about this particular part of the world is that it has not been explored,” said Jyotika Virmani, executive director of the Schmidt Ocean Institute. “Anytime people go down into the deep sea, it’s so vast and yet so unexplored that it’s very easy to make new discoveries and to see something we’ve never seen before. It is like being on a new planet.”

Part of the goal of the expedition was to create a baseline understanding of the species there so that marine park rangers can know what they are protecting. In addition to samples and images, the scientists noted the temperature and pH levels of the water.

The team also saw a bioluminescent Taning’s octopus squid, which, while present in ocean basins around the world, had not been documented in Western Australia. “It wraps itself tightly and boops these little bioluminescent flashes and looks like it’s doing morse code,” Dr. Wilson said. “It had scars. It has lived a life.”

The scientists used a kitchen scrubbing brush attached to the deep-sea robot to take a DNA sample of the octopus squid. Preserved specimens of the species they collected will be exhibited at the Western Australian Museum.

“It’s just magic being there and sharing those things for the first time,” Dr. Wilson said.

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