Into the abyss

The deep sea is less explored than the surface of the moon. But although both these alien environments have a similar magic to them, the deep sea has something the moon can’t offer – weird and wonderful life.

That’s why I’m looking forward to the Natural History Museum’s new exhibition, The Deep, which should bring the inhabitants of the darkest reaches of the ocean a bit closer to home.

Many of today’s scientists were inspired by the moon landings, but for my money the exploration of the deep sea has offered far more excitement. It’s got everything – from mythical creatures made real, like the giant squid, to game-changing discoveries like the deep sea ecosystems that flourish without energy from the sun.

I remember being amazed when I found out about these ‘black smokers’ – hydrothermal vents that pump out superheated, nutrient-filled water and support a treasure-trove of truly alien creatures. Now that’s something you don’t get on the moon.

Gutless and buttless

When the black smokers were discovered in 1977 it was the first time life that didn’t need sunlight had ever been found. This would have been amazing enough, but the animals that live in this dark world also manage to be impressively odd in other ways too.

Among the weirdest of the locals are the giant tube worms – 6-foot long, with no mouth, no anus, and no digestive system (‘gutless and buttless’, as they’ve been described). They survive with the help of bacteria that live inside them, acting like a battery that converts carbon dioxide from the vents into carbon that the worms use for energy. Exactly how the worms and bacteria came to work together is still a mystery.

Curiouser and curiouser

And it just gets better when you’re in the deep ocean – there are so many other beautifully strange creatures to be amazed by. They always cheer me up when the every-day world gets a bit too mundane. Have a look at some lovely critters here. Who needs aliens when you have these guys?

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