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In the depths of the Pacific Ocean, near the tiny island nation of the Republic of Kiribati, a box of gadgetry glided through the darkness. Roughly 5,000 meters beneath the surface, the device, called Neptune, illuminated the seafloor. Like a spaceship making its first inspection of an alien world it snapped photographs as it went—every 30 seconds for hours on end.
Nautilus Minerals, a seabed mining company, is tight-lipped about whether Neptune’s expedition across nearly 15 square kilometers of remote seabed revealed the bounty of desirable metals it sought. But the 4,000 photographs, likely the first ever taken in the region, did uncover something else: an array of colorful sea life including a big gray octopus with Dumbo-like ears, pale white anemones, bright orange prawns, and sea cucumbers an appropriate gherkin-shade.
Not since Great Britain’s Challenger Expedition in the late 1800s, when scientists endeavored to understand more about the oceans, has this area of the Pacific been sampled at depths greater than 3,000 meters. So when Daniel Jones, a deep-sea ecologist at the National Oceanography Centre in England, heard about the photographs, he immediately realized their potential. Nautilus handed over its data set, and with it, a tantalizing glimpse of an incredibly remote part of the ocean.
“It was amazing to have the opportunity to see it for the first time,” Jones says.
In the photos, Jones and his team identified 118 different types of multicellular animals. The scientists would have to physically examine the creatures to determine if they are new species, but Jones says that given the diversity it’s almost certain that some are.
The sea creatures generally seemed to be lonely, Jones says—caught on camera as individuals or in very small groups, quietly patrolling their deep, dark world. “Almost everything is represented by just a handful of individuals,” he says. “That’s the really unusual thing.”
Adrian Glover, a deep-sea specialist at the Natural History Museum in London, England, who recently confirmed the discovery of new deep-sea worms elsewhere in the Pacific, says Jones and his team’s findings are ground zero for understanding the biological value of the area.
A value that, some environmentalists fear, is under threat.
In addition to Nautilus Minerals, other seabed mining companies, such as Global Sea Mineral Resources, are gearing up to excavate huge swaths of the seafloor near Kiribati and elsewhere. The seabed may contain riches worth trillions of dollars, and many, including the government of Kiribati, are cautiously interested in participating in their exploitation. But extracting minerals from the seabed is challenging and profits are far from guaranteed. Nautilus Minerals, for instance, has faced financial troubles and is currently restructuring.
When asked how he would feel if industrial mining did come to the area, Jones declines to comment. But he says determining the extent of biodiversity in the deep sea is crucial for anyone considering industrial excavation.
Glover agrees. He says this kind of collaboration is an example of the promising dialogue that already exists between mining firms and scientists. He says the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the branch of the United Nations tasked with regulating the nascent seabed mining industry, is helping facilitate similar collaborations between commercial firms and scientists. It’s these partnerships, he adds, that open the door for scientists to study seafloor life in areas targeted by mining companies. “There’s an expectation that contractors will try and work with scientists,” Glover says.
Though mining companies are allowed to explore potential sites, the ISA has not yet permitted actual exploitation. The organization is facing considerable pressure from marine scientists as it decides how and where extraction will be allowed to proceed. Scientists will have to wait until 2020, when the ISA publishes its guidelines for the industry, to see whether the framework adequately protects biodiversity.
For ecologists, it feels as though a race is on to find out what lives in the dark reaches of the famously underexplored deep sea. Because if they don’t, governments and regulatory bodies won’t even know what there is to protect.