It’s April 2020 and a group of scientists are scanning the depths of the Indian Ocean, just off Australia. As they continue to work, the team catches sight of a huge animal beneath the waves with their equipment. At first glance, they believe this mysterious creature is the biggest organism on Earth.
If you love coastal regions, Australia is home to some incredible spots. From Kangaroo Island to the Great Ocean Road, these locations are absolutely stunning, boasting beautiful vistas. But while people are still drawn to the aforementioned places Down Under, there’s another area further out that’s fascinated researchers in recent times.
The area in question is called the Ningaloo Canyons, and it can be found near the western region of Australia. To learn more about the spot, an organization named the Schmidt Ocean Institute plotted an expedition in 2020. However, no one could’ve predicted what happened when the group finally hit the water.
Indeed, as we mentioned earlier, the team stumbled across a truly remarkable sight while studying the Ningaloo Canyons in April 2020. A mysterious organism came into view under the water, leaving them stunned. Due to its jaw-dropping size, the Schmidt Ocean Institute experts thought they’d found the world’s largest animal.
Before we take a closer look at the animal’s identity, though, let’s discuss its size. After all, you’re probably intrigued as to how big it was. Well, a precise figure couldn’t be reached at the time, but the approximation from the team’s equipment gave everyone a good idea of the creature’s stature.
The animal was captured on camera by an ROV: a remotely operated vehicle. To explain more, a couple of biologists opened up about the footage while speaking to the ScienceAlert website. According to Lisa Kirkendale and Nerida Wilson, a precise measurement wasn’t needed to make their grand proclamation.
“Although the ROV pilots made an estimate of [the animal’s] length, it has yet to be formally measured,” Kirkendale and Wilson revealed in April 2020. “However, it does appear to be longer than any other animal on the planet.” As for the actual figure, the creature was said to span over 150 feet.
The discovery was an exciting breakthrough for the Schmidt Ocean Institute, as the find highlighted the importance of its work. The organization has been scanning the seas for a long time now, trying to learn more about them. In fact, its official website offered a mission statement of sorts that outlined the institute’s activities.
The message on the website read, “We combine advanced science with state-of-the-art technology to achieve lasting results in ocean research. [We also] catalyze sharing of the information, and communicate this knowledge to audiences around the world. We foster a deeper understanding of our environment.” On that note, let’s take a deeper look into the organization’s work.
The Schmidt Ocean Institute first came into being back in March 2009 as a “non-profit” organization. It was put together by two people named Wendy and Eric Schmidt, who wanted to shed more light on the state of the world’s oceans. But that’s not all, though, as we’re about to find out.
Alongside the research, the Schmidt Ocean Institute aimed to ensure that seafaring technology was kept up-to-date as well. After all, only the best equipment would give experts the information they needed beneath the waves. Keeping that in mind, one of the institute’s creators shared their thoughts on the work being done.
Co-founder Eric Schmidt told the organization’s website, “This is an exciting time to be a part of ocean science. We are on the cusp of being able to unleash technology to explore the greatest depths of the ocean, to bring its beauty and hidden wonders to everyone around the world.”
Meanwhile, the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s website shared some other intriguing information, which we’ll get into now. The foundation owns a research vessel called the Falkor, which it has equipped with all the latest gadgets and tech. As a result of that, the ship has become a hugely important tool for ocean experts.
To give you an idea of the Falkor’s importance, the website also provided a few stats. For instance, the ship has apparently navigated over 95,000 miles of ocean in the last eight years. Furthermore, the web page revealed that since being brought into action by the organization, it’s taken to the sea 65 times.
In addition to those numbers, the Schmidt Ocean Institute unveiled a few more figures on the website too. Incredibly, over 370 researchers have used the Falkor in some way since 2013. Close to 180 of them were said to be students, who came from 19 different countries across the world.
In terms of the expeditions, the Falkor has visited several places in the last few years. From Costa Rica to Tonga, the ship’s inhabitants have studied some fascinating areas beneath the water’s surface. Yet the most recent project heralded results that reverberated around the globe, as the boat explored the Indian Ocean.
The project was referred to as the Ningaloo Canyons Expedition, with researchers hoping to learn more about the area off the coast of Australia. It began in March 2020 and was set to last for a month. Prior to the Falkor’s arrival, that particular location still harbored plenty of mysteries for scientists to probe.
For you see, Australia hasn’t been able to support researchers looking to study the Ningaloo Canyons in the past. Due to that, there aren’t a lot of records for people to refer to when talking about the location. However, while they’re in the dark on that front, there’s something that can’t be disputed.
Indeed, the Ningaloo Canyons house a huge number of animals beneath the waves. Unfortunately, though, local scientists have struggled to get a proper look at these creatures because they don’t own the right equipment. But that obviously wasn’t an issue with the Falkor thanks to the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s ambitions.
This time those who took part in the Falkor’s expedition had access to an ROV and sonar equipment. The group, which included Kirkendale and Wilson, planned to utilize the tools to observe the animals in the area. Alongside that, they intended to “identify and characterize” the aforementioned creatures as well.
You might be wondering how the Falkor’s crew could achieve that latter goal. Well, with the equipment at their disposal, they were able to view “environmental genetics” below the surface, otherwise known as eDNA. The traces would be collected from the water, providing the group with some incredible insights.
With everything in place, the expedition kicked off on March 8, 2020. In the following weeks, the crew recorded their progress on the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s website, providing updates every few days. But as they continued to study the Ningaloo Canyons, Wilson and company received an almighty shock to the system.
As we highlighted earlier, the group of scientists came across a massive animal in April 2020. The huge life form was found over 2,000 feet beneath the waves, catching everybody off guard. At first glance, it appeared to be a tentacled creature that positioned itself into a spiral shape.
All was not as it seemed, though. This animal was actually comprised from a collection of different life forms, which came together to build the creature in the water. These things are called siphonophores, and they’ve been fascinating experts for years on end. To back that up, a marine biologist spoke about them previously in 2014.
While talking to the Wired website, Stefan Siebert said, “The whole thing looks like one animal, but it’s many thousands of individuals which form an entity on a higher level. In a way these specialized bodies function as organs. Some move the colony, some feed for the colony, some take care of reproduction.”
Regarding that last point, Siebert went into a bit more detail. He continued, “Like any other animal, siphonophores start off with a single fertilized egg. And this egg develops into a small larva, and at some point this larva will develop its first tentacle, and it has a mouth opening by then.”
However, while Siebert was well-versed in some aspects of the siphonophores’ biological function, he didn’t know everything about them. In fact, the expert admitted that one issue in particular had continued to leave him stumped. But before he got into that point, he analyzed the structure of the individual bodies.
“[Siphonophores] have along the stem one long axon, which probably propagates signals from one end of the colony to the other,” Siebert informed Wired. “But how they coordinate all this and how the whole colony appears to act as an animal, it’s really not well understood.” And there’s something else to consider as well.
Siebert was dealing with siphonophores that weren’t as large as the one in the Ningaloo Canyons. For you see, these remarkable creatures normally measure in at about 100 feet in size. So keeping that in mind, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that Wilson and her team were shocked by what they saw on the Falkor.
During Kirkendale and Wilson’s conversation with ScienceAlert in April 2020, they said, “Everyone was blown away when [the siphonophore] came into view. There was a lot of excitement. People came pouring into the control room from all over the ship. Siphonophores are commonly seen but this one was both large and unusual-looking.”
Meanwhile, given Wilson and Kirkendale’s previous proclamation regarding the siphonophore’s size, the news of its discovery spread beyond the science sector. Indeed, newspapers such as the Daily Mail and The Sun both covered the story on their respective websites. Social media users were also kept in the loop too, as we’re about to find out.
The Schmidt Ocean Institute shared the finding on its Twitter page in April 2020. The tweet in question featured a short clip of the siphonophore in the water, drifting in front of the ROV. The post had a message as well, which outlined why this was such a big deal to marine experts.
The tweet read, “Check out this beautiful ‘giant’ siphonophore recorded on [the] Ningaloo Canyons Expedition. It seems likely that this specimen is the largest ever recorded, and in [a] strange UFO-like feeding posture.” Since being posted, it’s generated a fittingly large response on the social media website, with users gazing at the aquatic animal.
The post has earned over 13,000 likes and close to 5,000 retweets on Twitter. It’s also garnered more than 250 comments from online users, as many of them wanted to learn additional information about siphonophores. Yet the tweet didn’t just inspire people who were previously unaware of the animal’s existence.
Unsurprisingly, researchers outside of the Schmidt Ocean Institute were pretty excited too. For instance, a jellyfish expert from the University of North Carolina Asheville couldn’t believe her eyes. The finding eventually spurred her on to write up a lengthy Twitter post, where she shed a bit more light on the siphonophores.
Rebecca Helm wrote, “I have CHILLS. This is an ANIMAL. I’m guessing it’s over a hundred feet long, forming a spiral in the middle of the deep sea. I’ve gone on numerous expeditions and have never, EVER, seen anything like this. Let me tell you why it is blowing my mind.”
After explaining what a siphonophore was, Helm then unloaded her thoughts on the social media website. As it turned out, the animal’s positioning signaled a significant action. She continued, “Most of the siphonophore colonies I’ve seen are maybe 20cm long, maybe a meter. But THIS animal is massive. AND not just massive, the colony is exhibiting a stunning behavior: it’s hunting.”
“Some of the [colony] specializes in catching prey,” Helm explained. “Their slender bodies hang with a single long tentacle dangling like a hook-studded fishing line. A siphonophore colony in a line creates a curtain of deadly tentacles in the open ocean. But in THIS case, the animal is hunting in a galaxy-like spiral, [with] the long wisp-like tentacles draped below.”
Away from that, several other social media users offered their thoughts in response to the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s tweet. One comment in particular caught the eye, as an individual noted that siphonophores weren’t aware of the human world above them. It drew an interesting reply from the organization soon after.
“[We] love this concept,” the Schmidt Ocean Institute wrote on Twitter. “[We’re] like AM and FM radio waves, passing each other in the same space, ‘unaware’ of the other’s existence.” As proved by the foundation’s work in the Ningaloo Canyons, there’s still much to learn about these “different worlds” under the sea.