Into the Deep Blue Planet
As the upcoming Blue Planet II series will show, the ocean is a fascinating, sometimes terrifying place. Moray eels can slither on land, keeping out of water for up to 30 minutes. The Guillemot bird hunts underwater, diving down nearly 600 feet and staying below for several minutes. Coral reefs are loud places full of sounds from fish such as the Ambon damselfish, which makes little chirping and popping noises. Cuttlefish change their skin color so swiftly, their prey cannot help but stare, even as tentacles lunge forward to make them into dinner. Bobbits, shimmering worms at least a meter long, use serrated jaws to snatch unsuspecting fish and drag them into sandy burrows. Pacific octopuses can eat sharks and can even catch seagulls.
The Blue Planet’s Look at the Ocean
If you’re captivated by the ocean, you’ve probably seen the 2001 BBC series The Blue Planet. Narrated by the soothing voice of David Attenborough, this series was created by the same production team behind the 2006 series Planet Earth. The Blue Planet is a vision to behold: breathtaking scenes of oceanic wildlife, from the coasts to the depths, often featuring behaviors never before caught on film. This hidden world under the waves came to life in gorgeous scenes filled with creatures ranging from gray whales to hagfish, krill to yellowfin tuna, and Pacific salmon to sea lions. It was, and still is, a breathtaking show well worth the viewing.
On January 20th, 2018, Blue Planet II premiers on BBC America. The waiting is difficult, knowing that it is so close, and yet so far. For now, I’ve been poring over the companion book, released here on January 1st. With sections on the Coast, Coral Reefs, Green Seas, and more, there’s plenty to keep me entertained.
My favorite section, however, is on The Deep. I have an intense love of weird, spooky fish—the ones that make you want to stay away from all bodies of water, for fear that you might feel something brush against your leg as you swim. Because of this, I’ve decided to feature the creepiest, strangest, and most fascinating fish featured in the book. Now you, too, can know what lurks in the depths.
The Atolla Jelly
Jellyfish are, by definition, weird creatures. They provide little nutritional value when eaten, yet themselves eat anything they can get into their mouths. They make good use of sticky oral arms and stinging tentacles to catch and paralyze their meals. Some have other methods up their nonexistent sleeves: bioluminescence, the ability of an organism to produce light. One such jellyfish is the atolla, or alarm jelly. They light up when a predator approaches, with two goals in mind: to confuse their would-be attacker, and to make their assailant’s position known to larger predators, in the hopes that they’ll scare off or eat the original aggressor. Either way, they use the momentary distraction to swim away to safer waters.
At first glance, the barrel-eye is a strange-looking, but not abnormal, fish. Sure, its skull is clear, but in an ocean filled with squid and sharks and lobsters, that’s hardly frightening. You might notice that beneath that clear skull are two spheres. Miraculously, those are its true eyes. Though it looks like the barrel-eye has eyes where we expect them, those are actually nostrils. Instead, its eyes stare straight up, looking through a jelly-filled dome that protects them. These fish need more protection than average, as they often feed by stealing their meals from stinging siphonophores, and don’t want to lose their eyes in the process. You probably understand now why these are also called spookfish: with their weird anatomy, they are a little creepy-looking.
The Stoplight Loosejaw
If I had to pick, I would say that the dragonfish probably has the coolest name in the sea. One such species of dragonfish, the stoplight loosejaw, is a big fan of shrimp cocktails. The shrimp, however, are not fond of being eaten, and whenever they notice they are being stalked, they squirt a cloud of bioluminescence to cover their escape. The dragonfish, however, really wants its fancy hors d’oeuvre. It is one of the few deep sea creatures who can see the color red, and it employs its own red bioluminescence to counteract the blue smokescreen. It is a careful eater, however, and uses one last evolutionary advantage devouring its hard-earned prey: a dense black stomach through which its bioluminescent meal cannot shine. The dragonfish, in essence, makes certain that its meal can’t exact revenge after death.
The Dumbo Octopus
Deep down, at nearly 30,000 feet below the surface, dwells the deepest of all octopuses. The Dumbo octopus was so named because of its adorably oversized, fluttering fins that so closely resemble ears. Usually they are between 8 and 12 inches long, though the largest species can reach nearly 6 feet. They have tiny tentacles which, in some species, resemble ringlets, in others stylish skirts, and in others still, an umbrella. The Dumbo octopus is an occasional visitor to the super-heated vents where other creatures comfortably live, making their home in one of the earth’s most extreme environments. The octopus never stays for long, though. After getting a bite to eat, picking off the vent’s various residents, it moves back out into the cooler parts of the abyss.
Little light filters into the twilight zone. In this dark environment, any flash of light gives away the presence of another creature. Some fish grow enormous eyes to catch the slightest glimmer, but the fangtooth, which lives at nearly 16,500 feet, has a different approach. This toothy beast’s chompers are, by body size, the largest of any fish, giving it a ferocious appearance. They’re so big that the fangtooth has holes in the sides of its mouth so, when it takes a bite, the teeth go to either side of its brain instead of through it. Despite its terrifying looks, the fangtooth’s hunting strategy is simple: it swims around until colliding with something edible. It acutely senses the vibrations in the surrounding water. When it approaches something alive, its sense of smell helps determine whether or not the other creature is edible.
The Bluntnose Six-Gill Shark
Reaching up to an astonishing 26 feet long, the bluntnose six-gill is the largest extant species of a group of primitive sharks—living fossils closely resembling their ancient ancestors. What these sharks love more than anything is whalefall—when a whale carcass sinks to its final resting place on the ocean floor. The large body of a dead whale provides a huge, hearty meal for any shark in the vicinity. The first shark on the scene will try to defend the feast as its own, but when enough sharks arrive, a voracious feeding frenzy begins. Soon, every shark is ripping off chunks without a care for their fellow toothy predators. Other whalefall aficionados, like deep sea spider crabs, hagfish, squat lobsters, and amphipods, have to wait their turn. They approach the corpse only when the bluntnoses have finished and swam away, satiated at last.
The Zombie Worm
Zombie worms have one great love in life: bones. Where there’s a huge dead body, they make themselves at home. This is often the case with whalefall. As soon as the sharks, hagfish, and crabs have laid bare the bones, the zombie worms move into their new abode. Like tiny plants, their roots break down the bone into nutrients, while their other end, which closely resembles a red flower, absorbs oxygen from the surrounding water. This flowered end gives them their other name: the flowering snot worm. These creatures grow like crazy over the bones, covering them like a carpet, and when the bones turn to dust, the worms die. This isn’t the end of their line, however; their young, already released, float away in the current, seeking their own bony home and proliferating seas across the world.
With eyes jutting out of its head like lenses on a pair of binoculars, the tube-eye is a strange sight. These eyes provide incredibly powerful vision—a useful ability in the depths, where any hint of light can help you find dinner or escape being dinner yourself. They use their eyesight to find their favorite prey, tiny crustaceans called copepods. Like most species, copepods don’t enjoy being on the menu, and can leap several millimeters at a time, moving at high speeds. Though the tube-eye is 11 inches long and much bigger than the copepod, it still has to act quickly. To keep its meal from escaping, the tube-eye expands its tubular jaws and sucks in the copepods. Then it goes back to staring, wide-eyed, searching out its next victim in the deep dark sea.