A Deep Fascination

Capturing strange creatures from the abyss of the Pacific's Monterey Canyon and building them a home above sea level was a tricky adventure for marine biologists.

April 10, 1999|By STEPHANIE SHAPIRO | STEPHANIE SHAPIRO,SUN STAFF

ONTEREY, Calif. -- For every extraterrestrial creature we haven't discovered on Mars or in a galactic suburb, we have invented one to satisfy our outer-space imaginings.

But for every E.T., there is a real, earthbound creature as strange, as otherworldly, as cute.

Consider the predatory tunicate, an amusing, 6-inch-tall, see-through critter living 5,000 feet under the sea, rooted to the steep walls of the submarine Monterey Canyon by its cylindrical stalk. Atop that stalk, the tunicate wields a gaping Muppet-like mouth (oral hood) for trapping prey.

The tunicate, inhabiting a low-oxygen environment as alien to humans as the Martian atmosphere, is an overnight celebrity of "Mysteries of the Deep," a one-of-a-kind exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Northern California. The exhibit features 46 strange-but-true species collected from so deep it took a two-ton robot to get them.

The creatures are from the floor, walls and midwater of the bay's canyon. Their realm is off-limits to pedestrians, whose heads would shrink to key-chain souvenir size under pressure of nearly three tons per square inch. Sunlight cannot reach there.

After a decade of effort and a $5 million expenditure, research biologists and aquarists at the aquarium and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, have learned how to keep these bizarre and rare animals alive outside the canyon. The result has astonished even seasoned marine biologists who never thought they'd have access to a live, not pickled, tunicate.

Michael Hutchin, director of conservation and science for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association in Silver Spring, believes the exhibit is proof that "Star War creatures already exist."

Though a science fiction buff, Hutchin says that what is "truly astonishing is that those things do exist. They may be very small ... but there are incredible things that exist out there in nature, that go beyond your wildest imagination."

Scientists estimate that 10 million species inhabit the deep ocean, compared to 1.4 million described so far on land.

"From a research point of view, it's an incredibly important development," Hutchin says. "It's a window on another world and the education potential of the exhibit is also tremendous."

Viewing the exhibit is like strolling through a make-believe garden where mushroom soft coral blooms, pom-pom anemones slowly curl and uncurl their tentacles to nab krill, a bioluminescent comb jelly blinks like a Broadway marquee, and a deep sea-floor octopus seems to peer at you with unsettling humanoid eyes. An eerie soundtrack underscores the realization that the ocean's depths yield life as weird as anything not yet found in the heavens. It is a dark underworld undulating and pulsing with strange beauty.

Visitors meet such whimsical creatures as the peppermint gorgonian and the red licorice gorgonian. Brightly colored corals, they are flexible enough to survive strong currents and range in depth from 130 feet to 5,500 feet.

The gorgeous mushroom soft coral resembles an exotic bouquet. Found in depths up to 4,000 feet, it uses its lily-look-alike tentacles to snare drifting food.

The pallid eelpout inhabits the midwater, where there are no hard surfaces to rest on. They curl into hoops when disturbed and the black lining inside their stomach obscures the bioluminescent light of their prey.

Also living in midwater, the giant red mysid's intense color is its camouflage in deep waters where the color red vanishes. This shrimp-like animal releases a cloud of bioluminescent fluid when disturbed.

On seafloor as deep as 3,300 feet, the lovable spotted ratfish munches on brittlestars, worms and other low-lying animals. Related to sharks, ratfish have rabbit-like faces, smooth skin and large green eyes.

The extreme conditions that sustain such biological curios have made them extremely difficult to observe in their natural habitat, much less capture and keep alive: the pressure, a temperature hovering around 39 degrees, low oxygen requirements and quirky feeding habits.

Gilbert Van Dykhuizen, an aquarist who has worked since 1989 on "Mysteries of the Deep," displays an obvious affection for the critters he has brought to the surface of the ocean and public consciousness. Tall, craggy and sea-weathered, Van Dykhuizen stands in his office tucked away in the sprawling aquarium's deep-sea lab, where understudy tunicates, Sea whips and other animals await their star turn.

He recalls when marine biologists gathered at the research institute from around the world to brainstorm about developing techniques for retrieving deep-sea creatures. They were "skeptical it was going to happen," he says.

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