Creatures Lurking in the Darkness

By Anela Choy

In clear waters to the far north-west of Hawaiʻi’s main islands is a series of submerged and partially submerged remnants of once volcanic islands and drowned coral reefs.  These land masses and the 139,797 square-miles of the surrounding Pacific Ocean comprise the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, our nation’s largest conservation area and one of the largest conserved areas of marine environment globally.  Of the Marine National Monument, the vast majority of this protected area consists of deep, offshore waters that are also the least explored.

In the summer of 2009 the good ship Hiʻialakai carried a crew of scientists throughout the Monument on a month-long journey to conduct a variety of scientific and cultural explorations.  The Drazen laboratory in the Department of Oceanography at UH Mānoa is also known informally as the Deep Sea Fish Ecology Lab and thus, our participation was focused on using baited deep-sea traps to describe the vastly unknown cast of fishy deep-sea characters.  John Yeh, who designed and built the trap, and I repeatedly threw the trap off the back of the ship at various depths (mostly in very deep waters thousands of feet below the sunlit surface) and at various locations within the Monument.  In addition to comparing the Monument’s deep-sea scavenger community to others’ around the world, we wanted to see how this community varied in both the horizontal and vertical dimensions of the Monument.

The creatures lurking in the darkness were a surprise not only to science but especially to my eyes and mind.  Bright red Heterocarpus shrimps with antennae as long as pencils, slinking and shiny eels with smooth grey skin, ugly deep-sea fish known as rattails with their eyes and stomachs blown-up…these guys were enough to give any normal person nightmares.  Most disturbing (and perhaps most fascinating!) was the giant hagfish (Eptatretus carlhubbsi) that came up in one particularly slimy haul.  We won’t talk numbers and sizes, but know that it was as big as any respectably scary boa constrictor or python.  The hagfish had a face only a mother could love, with multiple fleshy barbels dangling from a large slimy hole (i.e., nostril).  There were no real eyes to look into, only primordial eye spots that held no sign of emotion or previous life.  What stuck with me most (yes, pun intended) was the heinous amount of icky, sticky slime and mucous that oozed out of the collection of glands running along the length of its chubby, slithering body.

photo by A. Choy

photo by A. Choy

John and I spent hours burning through an entire roll of paper towels to clean the continually oozing sticky stuff from the hagfish and everything it touched, including us.  When the spineless fish was as clean as we could get it, we snapped an array of pictures as if it was a celebrity.  That month in the Monument left me awe-inspired and entertained, truly driving home the reality of Earth’s deep-sea environment being less explored than the surface of our moon.

photo by A. Choy

photo by A. Choy

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