How important is deep sea life to our ecosystem?

Should we trust Disney's Sebastian the crab when he sings about how much better it is under the sea?...
07 December 2021

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Question

How is our activity impacting the deepest depths of the ocean?

Answer

Julia Ravey dives into the importance of the underwater life that we still know so little about with Diva Amon, a deep sea explorer and advocate for protecting our oceans...

Diva - We often think that the deep sea is kind of like out of sight, out of mind and also out of reach. But that is absolutely not the case. I think I've been on 16 research cruises from Antarctica to the Mariana trench to the middle of the Atlantic. And often they explore parts of our planet that no one has been to before that moment. But nearly every single research cruise that I've been on, we get down there and we find evidence of us before anyone has been there. And that might be a piece of our trash, or it might be trawl marks from a fishing net. It's often a really soul crushing point. You're like, 'Hey, no one's actually ever been here and no one's actually ever even seen what lives here, and yet here's our garbage'.

Julia - What’s been the most striking thing that you've seen?

Diva - The bigfin squid was spotted on the ship called the NOAA Okeanos Explorer, but I was actually sailing with them in 2017 in the Gulf of Mexico. And we were exploring a part of the Gulf of Mexico that no one had been to. And a couple of days before, we'd been given two sonar targets to explore. We'd explored one and it turned out to be a shipwreck and it had all this amazing life living on. It really was just an amazing moment. And so it goes without saying that we were all super excited to explore the second sonar target. We touched down on the sea floor about a kilometre deep in the Gulf of Mexico. You could hear a pin drop in that control van because everybody was just almost holding their breath as to what they were going to see. And we started driving towards it, and before we knew it, we were driving through a field of washing machines and dryers and chest freezers and fridges. And it turns out that sonar target that we have been, which was 40 feet long, which we thought was a shipwreck, turned out to be a shipping container. And so here we were in this moment of true exploration and it turned into this very surreal and very sad moment.

Julia - That is so sad. It's like the modern day shipwreck is our trash just sort of being left at the bottom of the ocean.

Diva - I mean, it's an interesting thing, right? Because you can actually, aren't shipwrecks also trash in a way? Sometimes? Depending on how they were lost, some of them are. So, it's like the modern day equivalent.

Julia - Fridges and toilets at the bottom of the ocean. So just how important are these deep sea creatures and their habitats to our ecosystems?

Diva - The deep ocean is, as, as I said earlier, you know, it's, it's the largest part of the planet. It provides about 96% of all space in which life can live. So it's a significant place. And that huge size means that it plays a really important roles in ecosystem services that we rely on and that all life on the planet relies on. So it sequesters carbon and absorbs heat, helping to regulate our climate, which now more than ever is important. It cycles nutrients. It is linked to fisheries that billions of people rely on. And all of these services that we rely on are ultimately, it comes down to the animals that live in the deep sea that are responsible for these things. So this little deep sea worm that lives, you know, five kilometres down in the Atlantic may have a really important function that ultimately plays a big role in, for instance, locking away carbon for thousands, if not millions of years, for instance. But the problem is, because we've explored so little of it for most of it, we can't answer that fundamental question of what lives there, much less questions about the ecology of these animals. What does it eat? How does it reproduce? What role does it play? And if you can't answer those questions, it's a bit hard to put all the puzzle pieces together to understand these big ecosystem services and not just how important they are, but what's making them function in the way that they are.

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