Swimmers who live in fear of slithery things brushing up against them in the ocean will probably be dismayed to know that there’s a veritable animal party going in East Coast waters. Check out the above map of seafloor biomass produced by NOAA – some of the densest accumulations of sea life are only a couple hours’ drive to the east. (Hi-res version.)
The model represents the estimated weight of all the carbon in the ocean – earthly organisms are largely composed of carbon – and includes everything from bacteria to tiny meiofauna that live between sand grains to flounder, lobster and other megafauna we’re more accustomed to seeing (and eating). The difference in mass among all these animals is so great that NOAA decided to go with a logarithmic scale here, with dark-green “10” areas being a power of 10 greater than slightly lighter “9” areas. A value of 10 means that about 11 tons of critter-carbon is situated within that square meter of ocean.
The fact that life is teeming near coastlines and the south and north poles reflects the greater abundance of nutrients there. In the less-dense ocean basins, there's not as much food and the body size of aquatic species tends to be smaller. Gray patches indicate that no sampling data was available.
So did scientists go around in a boat, sticking ladles into the water to see what was swimming in the murk?
Pretty much, yeah. This model is based on data collected over 10 years during the Census of Marine Life, an epic study conducted by researchers in some 80 countries that revealed 1,200 new species and at least one enduring meme. (Another 5,000 things are floating in jars waiting to be classified.) The census showed that the benthic biomass is much more diverse than we ever imagined. Among the treasures dredged up from the deep were abyssal sea cucumbers that move by ways of skin "sails," polychaete worms lounging around a "whale fall" (whale corpse) in Japan's Sagami Bay and a purple sea star a foot long in the French Frigate Shoals.
Then there was a ton of this appetizing stuff:
A bucket holding organisms collected from more than 1,000 meters depth in the Southern Ocean. (Brigitte Ebbe)