Updated: Aug 12, 2019
It’s an unfathomable truth – more people have stepped on the moon’s surface than have dived into the dark depths of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, one of the deepest parts of our planet’s oceans! It’s also bewildering that humans have mapped much of Mars but have managed to explore only 5% of the ocean floor. The remaining 95% remains a complete and utter mystery.
So, it’s no surprise that of the 700,000 to one million species scientists estimate inhabit our oceans, up to two-thirds have never been seen, let alone named or characterised. The good news is, whilst humans metaphorically have only just dipped their toe in the sea, as diving capabilities improve, more and more species of marine life are being brought to our attention. They’ve always been there of course and have been jogging along nicely without us, but it’s moving to be finally introduced.
And, boy, are they impressive!
Take the Magma fairy wrasse: this little fish the colour of fire likes its waters HOT, which is why scientists found it in 2017 among the underwater rubble slopes of the active undersea Didicus Volcano in the Philippines’ Babuyan Islands, part of the Pacific Ring of Fire. A peculiar fleshy growth protrudes from its head and acts as a lure for prey.
The Deep-sea anglerfish is really not a looker, being little more than a giant mouth, full of rows of needle-sharp teeth, tapering to a tail. Spotted in 2017 in the Western Indian Ocean at depths of up to 600m, it’s only a few centimetres long.
But it’s not just the curious shapes and adaptations of the newly discovered species that make them exciting, it’s the quantity of new species found in recent years. Talking about a decade-long Census of Marine Life carried out by 2,000 researchers from 80 different countries, Bob Gagosian, President/CEO of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, gasped excitedly: “Everywhere they’ve gone they’ve found new things!” The effort, funded by governments, foundations and corporations, found giant sea spiders, ancient species of bacteria and new starfish living in communities; in the deep icy waters of Antarctica, the bulbous tunicate was uncovered; and elsewhere, a species of blind lobster and giant bacteria.
More recently, in 2018, a research mission to Bermuda led by marine research scientists from Oxford University uncovered 100 new species – including tanaids (minute crustaceans), dozens of new algae species and black wire coral that stands up to two metres high – in a single, new ocean zone no one even knew existed, the Rariphotic Zone, or rare light zone, which extends from 130m to 300m depth.
With so much of Earth’s watery depths as yet unexplored, and with new technology now emerging that can survive them, the estimated number of known species on Earth seems destined to rocket. This is thrilling and says much about the wonder of life on Earth, so precious in its variety and capability.
Yet, in the midst of all these exciting discoveries comes a reality check that raises questions as to whether these wondrous marine creatures hidden in unexplored waters are better left unknown to and not knowing Man. When, in 2019, the American Victor Vescovo descended nearly 11km (7 miles) to the deepest place in the ocean, the Pacific Ocean's Mariana Trench, not only did he break the record for the furthest descent in a submersible, built to withstand the immense pressure, and discover four new species of prawn-like crustaceans called amphipods on the ocean’s floor, he came across the very worst of sea specimens… a swirling plastic bag.