The Top Ten Ocean Stories of 2021

From the discovery of a large bioluminescent shark to the use of an innovative drone to study hurricanes, these are the best marine stories of the year

Humpback Whales
A humpback whale and her calf swim underwater. A recent study in Nature found whales eat and poop way more than previously thought—and that feces plays an important role in fertilizing the ocean. Auscape / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The year in ocean news brought about quite a few surprises, including the discovery of a self-decapitating sea slug and the return to popularity of sea shanties. We learned that whales poop a lot more than previously thought and that their excrement is essential for ocean ecosystems, and that even large sharks can glow. Technology allowed us to reach the deepest depths of the oceans, travel to the eye of a hurricane and a whole lot more. In order to remind you of the biggest saltwater moments of the past 12 months, the National Museum of Natural History’s Ocean Portal team has rounded up the ten biggest ocean stories.

An Innovative Drone Weathers a Big Storm

SD 1045 Inside Hurricane Sam and the Saildrone Mission Portal

Traveling to the eye of any hurricane is a treacherous endeavor. Such a journey is so perilous that it wasn’t until this year that scientists were able to successfully send a sailing drone into the heart of a Category 4 hurricane. The Saildrone, a new autonomous ocean-going vessel with a sleek body and upright sail, lasted 15 hours riding the waves of Hurricane Sam this fall and recorded the first videos and photos of the sea’s surface during a major hurricane. Previous attempts to do the same relied on low-flying drones, but many lasted 30 minutes before meeting their demise in the waves. As the Saildrone battered through 50-foot waves and winds over 150 miles per hour it relayed data back to scientists via satellite. This trip was experimental, but in future voyages the information gained will likely aid in storm forecasting.

Researchers Discover Sea Slugs Cut Off Their Own Bodies

See a sea slug head creep around its detached body | Science News

Self-decapitation may seem like sure way to die, but for a few species of sea slugs it’s a life-saving exploit worth trying. Scientists discovered that slugs riddled with parasites, and without a means to rid themselves of the vermin, shed their bodies and developed new ones from lopped off heads. The regeneration takes about three weeks, during which time the growing slugs likely sustain themselves off sugars produced via photosynthetic algae that live within their skin. A follow up study of the phenomenon revealed not all sea slugs live through the trauma, but even a small chance of success is enough to warrant a try.

Scientists Identify Animals in the Field Based on eDNA

Cassiopea Jellyfish
Cassiopea is an upside-down jellyfish that rests on the bottom of the seafloor. Scientists identified the presence of it in the field using eDNA. Andre Morandini

While the technology to identify animals based on DNA they shed in water has been around in ocean science for the past decade, the process required the use of a laboratory with electricity and internet service. Using DNA for identification is a multistep undertaking and one that has proven tricky to take to the field. This year marine scientists did just that—with a portable sequencer the size of a smartphone scientists were able to determine which jellyfish species were in a particular marine habitat with several cups of water. The technology identifies snippets of environmental DNA (aka eDNA) that have either been excreted or sloughed off into the water and then matches those sequences to a database stored on a laptop. The achievement will help scientists better manage fisheries and monitor conservation efforts, and may benefit the creation of a massive coral eDNA reference library at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Scientists Dig the Deepest Ocean Hole in History

Kaimei Research Vessel
The research vessel Kaimei is equipped with a drill for collecting ocean sediment. JAMSTEC

Studying earthquakes requires getting at the epicenter—the point above the focus of the event—and since earthquakes strike deep within the Earth, that requires a very large drill. This year scientists successfully bored a hole at the deepest ocean depth ever attempted to learn more about the 2011 Tohokuoki earthquake that initiated the massive tsunami and resulting Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan. From the research vessel Kaimei, a long, thin drill was lowered down to the bottom of the Japan Trench—five miles below—where it then drilled a 120-foot-long sediment core. By studying the rock obtained via the core scientists hope to learn more about the earthquake history of that area.

Paleontologists Find an Ancient Spaceship-Shaped Fossil

Massive New Animal Species Discovered in Half-Billion-Year-Old Burgess Shale

We now know of a massive predator—for its time—that roamed the ancient Cambrian Sea roughly 500 million years ago. It only measured 1.6 feet in length, but Titanokorys gainesi was a relative giant in comparison to the majority of other ocean creatures—which grew no bigger than several inches (like the shell-wearing penis worm also discovered this year). The predator is now one of the biggest animals from the Cambrian period ever found. With a massive shield-like carapace covering its head, large eyes and a body with numerous swimming flaps, it would be quite an oddity by today’s standards. The researchers who discovered the fossil in the Canadian Rockies refer to the species as the “massive swimming head.”

Two Big New Discoveries About Whales Were Made

Beaked Whale Skull
Ramari Stewart holding the skull of the newly named Ramari's beaked whale. Tanya Cumberland

It’s no surprise that the largest animals in the world would produce massive amounts of poop as well—but research published in Nature shows that whales eat and defecate much more than previously thought and that poop supports a plethora of ocean life. Whale feces is packed with iron, an important nutrient for all kinds of ocean organisms, including carbon-sequestering phytoplankton—a microorganism that serves as the basis for ocean food-webs. In other words: a whale poops in the ocean, and countless fish are better off for it.

While whale poop was enriching the environment this year, scientists enriched our knowledge of whales by adding a newly identified species of beaked whale to the roster.

Renowned Tohunga Tohorā (or whale expert) Ramari Stewart was raised in her Māori culture’s traditional knowledge, and it was that experience that helped her identify the new species. She was able to tell it was different than a previously described True’s beaked whale thanks to extensive time studying whales through up close encounters and knowledge passed down from her elders. The whale that washed ashore on Aotearoa New Zealand’s Te Waipounamu (South Island) didn’t look like those she’d encountered before. Stewart teamed up with collaborators, including University of Auckland’s Emma Carrol and Smithsonian’s Michael McGowen, and they were able to confirm it was an entirely new species. The identification and ultimate naming of Ramari’s Beaked Whale is a testament to the power of different perspectives working together. “Rather than just bridging a relationship and taking knowledge from Indigenous practitioners,” says Stewart, “it is better that we both sit at the table.”

A Video of Deep Sea Creatures Lights Up a United Nations Building

Trailer: Vertical Migration by SUPERFLEX

During U.N. Climate Week, international government, business and organization leaders met to reflect on the latest climate developments and discuss climate action. The meeting highlighted some of the negative impacts caused by climate change; glacier and sea ice loss accelerated in the past two decades, extreme marine heatwaves shocked the seas from January through April and open ocean surface pH fell as acidity rose. Though, amidst all the gravity of U.N. Climate Week, one delicate organism defied it—a siphonophore, which floated up the side of the United Nations Headquarters in New York City in a projection several stories tall. It was a grand display of a humble organism that lives in the twilight zone of the ocean—which receives little light—and removes carbon from the water as it feeds. The installation artwork, titled “Vertical Migration,” was the work of Danish artist collective Superflex. As we seek solutions for human generated warming, the slow dance of the siphonophore reminds us of the often-overlooked species that may be negatively impacted by climate change.

Sea Shanties Go Viral

The Wellerman (Sea Shanty) - From TikTok to Epic Remix

Users across social media platforms like TikTok made a rousing statement this year: soon may the Wellerman come. The statement shows up in the catchy chorus of a New Zealand sea shanty—a song that would’ve been belted out by 19th century sailors at work, and is now seeing a resurgence. With people all over the world experiencing extended periods of isolation, looming risk and uncertainty, it’s no surprise that sea shanties are back in fashion. For much of maritime history, shanties served to help sailor morale and keep a crew working together in time while at sea. Commonly characterized by easy-to-learn melodies and infectious choruses, the shanties had all the right ingredients to make the viral trend affectionately referred to as “ShantyTok.” The TikTok widely credited to have led the charge is a rendition of “Soon May the Wellerman Come,” by Glasgow-based postman and musician Nathan Evans. Once released, it became a popular focus of duets by other TikTok users, gathering layer upon layer of new vocal and musical contributions until it became a seaworthy chorus. The original tune was most likely penned in the 1830s by a young New Zealand sailor and described in cheerful verses the challenging adventure of the ship Billy of Tea to land a formidable whale. The Wellerman referenced throughout the lyrics would’ve been a deliveryman of Sydney’s Weller Brothers’ shipping company, which restocked New Zealand whalers with provisions, including the “sugar, tea, and rum” referenced. Though he may only have worked between the company’s founding in 1833 to its collapse in 1841, thanks to modern social media circles like ShantyTok, the Wellerman sails on.

A Shark Becomes the Largest-Known Glowing Vertebrate

Glowing Kitefin Sharks
The kitefin shark glows in the dark. J Mallefet / UC Louvain / FNRS

Scientists identified the kitefin shark as the largest glowing species with a spine. The animal weighs up to 18 pounds and can measure up to six feet in length of blue-green bioluminescent charisma. Netted at 2,600 feet off the coast of New Zealand, the shark specimens were examined by marine bioluminescence expert Jérôme Mallefet from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. The hormone that activates the fish’s bioluminescence is the same one that makes us sleepy: melatonin. Bioluminescence is a biochemical reaction, involving luciferin molecules and oxygen, that generates light. Though the methods vary across organisms, the trait has evolved across the animal kingdom over and over—lighting up a variety of bacteria, fungi, insects and sea life. The phenomenon is especially bright in the ocean, where trillions of bioluminescent organisms generate glowing patches observable by satellite. Now, we know the kitefin shark is part of the light show.

A Sub Finds Stand-Ins for Two Popular Cartoon Characters

Earlier this year SpongeBob Squarepants’s doppelgänger made an appearance in the news after a deep-sea live stream from the NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer. Echinoderm expert and Smithsonian research associate Chris Mah shouted out a sea sponge and its pink sea star companion on Twitter, underscoring their uncanny resemblance to the cartoon characters SpongeBob Squarepants and Patrick Star from the long running Nickelodeon show. “I normally avoid these refs..but WOW. REAL LIFE SpongeBob and Patrick!” Mah wrote. The pair was spotted on the Retriever Seamount, one of four seamounts that comprise the Atlantic Ocean’s Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. Sea sponges were long thought to be incapable of movement, but a study published this year in Cell Biology observed evidence that in the central Arctic they are sliding slowly along the sea floor—pulling themselves along on spike-like appendages that are shed in the process. But is it enough to outpace a starfish? The truth is these two organisms aren’t the bottom-dwelling best friends they resemble. Chondraster stars are carnivores, and they’re known to eat sea sponges.

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