The Bizarre Mysteries at the Bottom of the Ocean


Who wants to take a break from the turmoil civilization is experiencing? Let’s go somewhere away from all humanity’s troubles. To paraphrase what a wise man once sang, we’ll find better down where it’s wetter, so let’s go under the sea. There we know what we’re getting. There’s fish, crustaceans, reefs, and rocks. We know what it is, but we’re actually around it rarely enough that it’s all still novel, right?

Turns out the ocean floor still has surprises for us. Entities that look like nature couldn’t have designed them. Ominous evidence of inexplicable intelligent activity. Objects unimaginably out of place. The unknown, the maybe unknowable. It’s all waiting down there. 

10. The Purple Orb

In the year 2014 alone, the world’s scientists claimed that they had identified 1,500 new underwater species. That’s roughly the same number of known fish that were previously recorded on the Great Barrier Reef, showing how diverse the species in one environment can be, and how many species can be found without any notice. Yet still, in 2016, a single enigmatic purple object drew the eyes of the media.  

Roughly one mile below the surface near the Channel Islands of California and two inches wide, the discovery from July 2016 had even veteran researchers, quoted by the Christian Science Monitor, saying that they were “stumped.” The creature, which was recovered by the E/V Nautilus, was colored completely unlike any known mollusk, slug, or any creature in that environment. Still, since it was discovered by scientists on an expedition, no one was rushing to declare it a whole new species. Little wonder that retrieving such a curious find required fighting off a crab. Who wouldn’t want such a valuable find?  

9. Secret Underwater Bases?

While the location of the previous entry is well known, the potential locations of this next entry remain a closely kept secret. At the same time that the US Navy was installing listening posts for Soviet submarines in the 1960s, it was drawing up plans for using tunnel-boring machines to build military undersea bases, as it had successfully done in 1966 with Sealab II. By 1968, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics was releasing formal plans that insisted the idea would both be financially practical and provide useful data for developing bases in outer space. CF Austin was one of the most prominent voices in the effort. However, in 1969, Sealab III failed when a helium leak caused the death of an aquanaut, officially putting an end to the project for decades. Still, as late as 1971, a report was released regarding underwater soil excavation at a Point Sur, California area that would be relevant to such a base. 

What is known is that if America hasn’t built an undersea base and doesn’t hurry, China may beat them to the punch. They announced their plans for one in 2016, at a highly ambitious depth of roughly 10,000 feet. China should definitely proceed with caution, though, as in 2019, it turned out that eddies (or underwater tornadoes) threatened submarines near the entrance of their Yulin Naval Base. That’s just a sample of the unforeseen problems that could sink such a project. 

8. Thousands of Big Sur Holes

Speaking of Big Sur, something particularly curious and quite likely man-made was uncovered in those waters in 2019. A survey by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute found a rough array of approxiamately 15,000 holes in the seabed. These weren’t tiny divots, either. They were on average dozens of feet wide and in many instances three feet deep. Thousands of them had some trash stuck in them, along with animals, for which these were an ideal home. 

As it happened, the expedition that found these many mysterious holes was actually looking into an array of other mysterious holes. In 1999, about 5,000 holes were discovered in a 500 square mile area off of Big Sur. These holes completely dwarfed the more recently found holes, averaging hundreds of feet wide and often about 15 feet deep. According to Science Alert, the leading theory for a while was that these holes are created by methane leaking from a massive deposit below the sea bed. That would mean a big relocation for the planned wind farm in that area for safety reasons. So it was potentially for the best that no evidence of underground gas activity was found in subsequent research, but it makes the mystery all the more puzzling.   

7. The Florida Escarpment Wreck

A 2016 article by Popular Mechanics included an estimate that there are roughly three million shipwrecks around the world, and of those around 1% have actually been explored, or their cargo scavenged. Amongst this submerged crowd, a 200-year-old wreck found in May 2019 about 160 miles from the coast of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico offered only tantalizing clues to its identity 1,460 feet below the surface. 

The wreck was 124 feet long, made of wood with copper sheeting. There were also some iron artifacts around the crash site. Other than that, the only identification the wreck offered was that the numbers 2109 had been nailed to the rudder. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be any known record of ships for that numerical designation to be used for identification, leaving us to do little but scratch our heads.   

6. The Freshwater Deposit

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association puts the salinity of ocean water at an average of roughly 3.5%, and says that most of it has come from land runoff and the absorption of carbon dioxide during its time as water vapor. That’s an average with a wide range, as you can imagine, since some areas — such as depths in the Gulf of Mexico — can reach as high as four times that level. With the power of ocean currents and such high levels about, you’d expect salt to be pretty inescapable. Well, tell that to a stretch of water that stretches roughly 220 miles off from the coasts of Massachusetts to New Jersey, first discovered in the 1970s during offshore drilling projects. Its average depth was found to reach from 600 feet below the surface to 1,200 feet below, if you were wondering why it was only discovered so recently.

That’s not to say it’s an area completely without salt. Sections of it have been found to rise to about 1.5% salt. Many others, particularly those closer to shore, are about .1% salt, which puts them on par with drinkable freshwater. Indeed, one of the leading theories of how this deposit formed is that during the Ice Age, chunks of freshwater went subterranean, and the less salty water is leaking from underground into this deposit. Whatever is the case, considering fears that a drinkable water crisis is lingering on the horizon for America, we may be turning to this relatively low-cost source of water for salinization before you know it.   

5. Indian Ocean Sea Squirt

We saw in this list’s first entry just how bizarre the unknown stationary animals can get, hiding as they do in colorful reefs. Other creatures are not so discreet, but they’re no less able to stump us. Such was the case in April 2019 when the Five Deeps Expedition, a mission under Victor Vescovo to explore five oceans, went more than four miles beneath the surface of the Indian Ocean into the Java Trench. As is so often the case, it just took a single animal to steal the spotlight: an unidentified creature that drifted along the ocean floor like a balloon on a string. 

Initially the creature looked like a jellyfish, but it might also be a creature called a tunicate. They are usually known to stay in place on the floor. There was speculation that this one was extending a tentacle that was useful for staying off the ground during an earthquake, but was sent adrift. It goes to show that the ocean’s animals can be so difficult to catalog that even a potentially previously identified creature can be recorded with crystal clarity and experts can still be unsure what they’re looking at.   

4. The Case of the Stolen Observatory

We’ll switch our focus from objects that are mysterious in appearance, to objects that are mysterious in their absences. On August 21, 2019, a sea bed observatory (essentially a collection of automated recording instruments) was monitoring waters near the Danish/German border as normal. It was used to check salinity, temperature, the presence of other trace elements, etc. Then it went silent, leaving behind only a crudely cut cable.  

This is no easily stolen object that we’re talking about here. This was a device about the size of a small car, weighing about 1,630 pounds. It was 72 feet below the surface in more than a mile offshore in waters it was not legal to enter. This is also an object which cost about 300,000 Euros, which presumably wouldn’t be a lucrative return for what seems like a fairly elaborate heist to pull off. There also was no indication of especially strong, sudden currents that would send such a heavy object adrift. It had been in service since August 2016 with no signs of danger before. The GEOMAR Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research was not optimistic, releasing a statement that they would “probably find the parts on a beach.” That doesn’t seem like a very satisfying resolution to the mystery.    

3. The Stolen Submarines

There’s no mystery to what happened to the Dutch submarines HNLMS O 6 and HNLMS K XVII that caused them to sink. Japanese mines got them in 1941 off a Malaysian coast, and unfortunately 79 people perished as a result. What is mysterious is how it was found in 2019 that the two submarines had been stolen. These were both ships of about 240 feet in length that would weigh around 1,000 tons, so no easy salvaging operation to be conducted illicitly. 

Still, these two stolen submarines were just the most prominent crimes in what seems to be a wave of stolen sunken ships from Malaysian and Indonesian waters. There have been about 40 thefts of sunken Allied vessels in these waters, either the entire ships or significant parts of them. Despite seeming like contraband that would be extremely difficult to acquire and transport, perhaps even harder to smuggle, and both degraded and fragile, there’s apparently a lucrative market for salvaged WWII vessels being sold to collectors. A 2017 report by The Guardian put the price of such a haul at maybe $1 million. If anyone solves the mystery of which group of criminals is pulling off these thefts, imagine the photos that could be taken of their illegal inventory.

2. Azorian Pyramid

We’ve previously covered the submerged Yonaguni temple off the coast of Japan’s Ryuku Islands, and now it’s time to cover the potentially even more majestic pyramid that was supposedly found between the islands of São Miguel and Teceira in the Azores (an archipelago in the Mid-Atlantic claimed by Portugal). In 2013, Diocleciano Silva was leading an expedition using GPS to map the ocean floor when the team discovered a potentially man-made structure. It was a pyramidal structure roughly 65 yards high and 8,750 square yards at the base. Articles used elaborate and detailed concept art to illustrate the findings. In truth the images that the team had to work with were crude wireframes, though they were no less intriguing. 

Silva’s team submitted the findings to the Portuguese Navy Hydrographic Institute. While they did not reach any definitive conclusions, as of 2015 there were some very interesting correlating findings. The Portugeuse Association of Archaeological Research found evidence that there were humans in those areas of the Azores 20,000 years ago, and studies of the tectonic activity of the area showed that the site of the alleged pyramid would have been on dry Earth at the time. Hardly proof it was man-made, but the possibilities are quite exciting.

1. Pretty Much All of It

While Google Maps and satellite imagery have given humanity a remarkably thorough look at Earth’s land areas, the 70% that’s under hundreds of yards (or even miles) of saltwater remains frustratingly unknown. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association 80% of the ocean floor remains unexplored. Of that explored 20%, around half is only through sonar exploration no more sophisticated than the undetailed images Diocleciano Silva’s expedition was creating.  

Unexplored areas are not at all limited to less accessible international waters, as only roughly 35% of American territorial waters have been explored. Speaking of America, in June 2019, NASA announced that it was funding a project called Exploring Ocean Worlds which would use the best of NASA’s technology to explore those oceans. Imagine what could be waiting behind the next reef or at the depths of the next trench!

Dustin Koski’s fantasy novel A Tale of Magic Gone Wrong makes fine deep sea reading.

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