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Deep in the ocean, resting on the seafloor, there is a strange ecosystem – one built on the bodies of the dead. Join us on a tour of a whale fall.

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Host: Sarah Suta (she/her)
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#whalefall #deapsea #octopus #soothing
Deep in the ocean, resting on the seafloor, there is a strange ecosystem, one built on the bodies of the dead.

It’s not a permanent feature of this shadowy marine landscape, but one that will fade away with time, a temporary oasis in the darkness. But while it lasts, it plays host to an army of scavengers large and small, gathering to feed in the gloom.

It’s called a whale fall. [ ♪ intro ] Welcome to our second undersea journey on Bizarre Beasts. This time, we wanted to take you on a tour of a whale fall, an ephemeral seafloor ecosystem created by the death of a whale in the sunlit waters above. Our friends at Nautilus Live discovered this ghostly scene off the coast of central California, on an underwater mountain called Davidson Seamount.

There, the skeleton of a 4-to-5-meter-long baleen whale rests gently on its back on the sand. Its flesh is mostly gone, but some blubber and cartilage remain, drawing in the creatures that feast on what’s left. Eelpouts and octopuses crowd around the whale’s upper rib cage and neck, moving slowly, if at all, in the cold, deep water, seemingly at rest after a big meal.

Despite their name and eel-shaped bodies, eelpouts aren’t eels, and four different species have been seen at Davidson Seamount. But they may be outnumbered by the octopuses, stretching their pale arms out across the bones. These are from the genus Muusoctopus, a kind of octopus that thrives in the deep sea.

To the southeast of the Seamount, over a thousand of them have gathered to brood their eggs. But eelpouts and octopuses aren’t the only scavengers that have found the whale fall. You might also notice a reddish-brownish fuzz that covers some of the bones, gently waving in the current… That fuzz is actually worms, specifically, bone-eating worms in the genus Osedax, which is Latin for “bone-devourer.” And while they have no mouths or stomachs, they will do just that.

The worms secrete a bone-dissolving acid that releases the proteins and fats trapped within the whale’s skeleton, which their symbiotic bacteria can then consume. They’re some of the last creatures that come to feast on the whale fall, helping with the final breakdown of the body. But it will still take a while.

When Nautilus Live returned to the site of the whale fall a year later, the skeleton wasn’t completely gone… The ribs and skull had become fragmented, but the whale’s vertebrae still traced a thick white line across the sand, a reminder of its lonely presence in the deep... We hope you enjoyed this new kind of Bizarre Beasts video. We’ll be back on the first Friday of next month with one of our regular episodes. [ ♪ outro ]