When a whale dies, its enormous bones settle on the sea floor, providing a
feast for deep-sea animals that can last for years. To find out what happens at
these “whalefalls” over time, MBARI scientists have sunk five whale carcasses in
Monterey Bay and have been using remotely operated vehicles to check on them
several times a year.
So far they’ve learned that early dinner guests, such
as sharks, hagfish, rattail fish, and crabs, help strip the meat from the bones.
Later arrivals, such as the amazing Osedax worms which live only on whalefalls,
burrow into the bones and feed on the rich fats and oils there. The research
continues with lots left to learn.
On this mission you’ll have a chance to operate a camera attached to a virtual deep
seafloor observatory to monitor the surprisingly rich and varied marine life around a
sunken whale carcass.
The bones of a large dead whale can provide food for deep-sea animals for over 50 years.
About 200 different species of seafloor animals have been found on a single whale skeleton.
Osedax worms, which live only on whalefalls, have no eyes, legs, mouths, or stomachs,
but they do have colorful feathery plumes and green "roots." These roots are filled with
bacteria that help the worms adsorb nutrients from whale bones.
The Eye-in-the-Sea is an underwater camera that can be left on the deep seafloor for
weeks or months at a time to take pictures of deep-sea animals. Sometimes the
Eye-in-the-Sea is outfitted with bait or glowing lures to attract deep-sea animals.
It can also illuminate the seafloor using red lights that are less likely to scare
away some deep-sea animals.
Most oceanographic instruments, including the Eye-in-the-Sea, are left unattended on
the seafloor, running on batteries. Sometimes the batteries run out, so ocean
scientists never know whether they will get useful information until they retrieve
their instruments. New ocean observatories, like the MARS observatory under
construction in Monterey Bay, will connect oceanographic instruments to power
supplies on shore. Even better, they will allow oceanographers (and the general public)
to see what’s happening in the deep ocean in real time.
VIEW ANOTHER MISSION
Shannon Johnson works as a research technician in the MBARI molecular
ecology lab. Here she talks about the discovery of bone-eating Osedax worms.