An abstract representation of osedax (or bone-eating worms) on a whale fall, which is when a whale dies and sinks to the bottom of the ocean. Whales are so huge that, in the right conditions, their bodies become self-sustaining ecosystems that can last for decades. Osedax remind me of flowers as their plumes penetrate bone and branch out into marrow cavities like roots. I found the idea of a garden growing from a whale skeleton on the bottom of the ocean really beautiful. This is a sperm whale skeleton, which is where osedax were first discovered. Done in watercolor, marker pen, and gouache. 

youtube

“What the heck is that?!”

While piloting the ROV Hercules ~600 meters beneath the Gulf of Mexico, crew aboard the research vessel Nautilus (which regularly live-streams from beneath the waves) came face-to-face with an inquisitive visitor: an enormous sperm whale. 

In the video, the researchers’ voices are bursting with excitement as they observe the giant whale swimming around their robotic submersible. I love it, you can hear an almost childlike excitement in their exclamations. This is why one gets into science, to experience a moment like that.

Largest of the toothed whales, and the largest toothed predator on Earth, sperm whales are capable of diving to more than 7,000 feet (~2,100 m), far deeper than this encounter, in search of giant squid to snack on. This sperm whale, probably a solitary male, even shows scars from past kerfuffles with Kraken. Sperm whales collapse their lungs and other open cavities while diving at extreme depths in order to avoid dangerous tissue damage and nitrogen poisoning (AKA “the bends”). A truly remarkable creature, adapted for life in one of the most challenging environments on Earth. 

As for what this whale might be seeing as he gazes upon the ROV, we can not know. Whale eyes are monochromatic, blind to the blue of the ocean. Their wide-aperture eyes are low resolution, but highly sensitive. They gaze toward each side, the whale’s brain interpreting two independent fields of view. For all we know of whale evolution and ocular anatomy, their sight is beyond our perception. For more on what whales like this might see, feast your eyes on this read about the science and philosophy of whale eyes and cetacean sight by Alexis Madrigal. It’s fantastic.

This video is a rare treat, an encounter between two intelligent animals, each with their consciousness inaccessible to the other, but sharing an experience all the same. That’s beautiful.