There has been much in the news of late about space exploration including the efforts of SpaceX, the recent landing of the Perseverance Rover on Mars, and even the local efforts of blueShift Aerospace to put satellites into orbit using a bio-fueled rocket. And while there is certainly plenty to explore beyond Earth, there is also so much to discover here – particularly in our oceans.

I wrote a few weeks back about the aquatic biome and all that it encompasses around the globe. Water covers more than 70% of the planet. And, of that 95% is salty. That’s a lot of habitat just on the surface. Then, add to that the extraordinary depths of water that exist in some parts of the ocean, nearly seven miles of it in the part of the Marianas Trench known as the Challenger Deep. I don’t have the mathematical skills to calculate the cubic footage of oceanic swish, but it is a lot.

Of that enormous volume, it is amazing how much of it is habitable and by such an enormous diversity of plants and animals and weird organisms we don’t even know how to classify. In an effort to tabulate the total species, scientists from around the world collaborated on a 10-year project called the Census of Marine Life (COML). The effort began in 2010 and included 2700 scientists in more than 80 countries. They document everything from creatures like tiny phyto (plant) plankton that shimmy to the surface to absorb sunlight as well as those like single-celled amoebas called monothalamea that can be as big as 4 inches across – that’s gigantic for an amoeba.

More than 250,000 species have been documented, with more than 1,200 of those being species never seen before. And, they estimate that there are thousands yet to be discovered. That doesn’t even include microbes (tiny living things like bacteria, fungi and . . . viruses) of which there may be more than a billion undocumented types.

Finding species at the surface seems like a reasonable enough pursuit. But, getting to those miles down is an extra challenge. Humans have been able to go more than two miles beneath the surface aboard an HOV (human-operated vehicle) called the Alvin. It can stay submerged for up to 10 hours and has taken several trips since it was built in 1964. It is scheduled for its next expedition sometime this year.

While HOVs are amazing technology, having unmanned submersibles greatly expands the capacity of scientists to explore deeper and in more areas. Ocean floor rovers somewhat akin to the Mars Perseverance can explore where it isn’t yet safe for humans to go. Also, like the Perseverance, these submersibles look a bit like Swiss Army knives. They are equipped with sophisticated cameras, grabbers and probes. In the process of the COML project, all kinds of new technology was developed or improved upon to help collect more sophisticated information.

In order to study the ocean’s vastness, scientists segment the depths into five realms from the edge of the continents out to the mid-Atlantic ridge down to submerged mountains, on to the muddy plains and finally to the vents and seeps of abyssal ocean trenches. Down there, when the lights of their cameras shined in what they thought were vacant seamounts (old mountains that don’t reach the surface), they illuminated unexpectedly brightly colored corals. These cameras also captured photos of a bizarre octopus relative that scientists nicknamed “dumbo”. There are about 15 species of dumbo octopods, which are the deepest octopod species. They are named for their giant fins that look like Disney’s Dumbo’s ears.

The gist of these discoveries is that we have found out that the ocean is even more diverse and full of life than we thought. The life that scientists discovered in places that seemed impossible for life to exist surprised them, as did the rediscovery of species thought to be extinct.

Aside from just being neat, all of this information stands to serve many purposes. First, they have created an online system that includes geographic locations for everything they have found. The Ocean Biogeographic Information System (www.iobis.org) is publicly accessible and useful to everyone from policymakers to teachers. It also serves to document a snapshot in time so that it is possible to track what might change over time. That includes migration routes that criss-cross international boundaries.

In Maine, our piece of the pie is the Gulf of Maine Area Program (GoMA) that studies the unique features and processes of this ecosystem. The information gathered is already in use by resource managers who now have a more complex set of information to work with in understanding the dynamics of the creatures that live here.

For those curious about anything living in the ocean, the COML offers an array of resources as rich as the life it aims to document. There are maps and data sets as well as buckets of educational videos, activities, and libraries. These aren’t just for kids, but are a great learning tool for anyone who wants to learn more about a part of a world at least as bizarre and fascinating as Mars and a bit closer to home.

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