Octopus eating whale fall

Dead whale fall devoured by octopus and scavengers in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

Imagine the lifeless form of a massive baleen whale, falling silently through the lightless environment of the deep ocean. Thousands of pounds of blubber and bone eventually crash into the sea floor at depths of over 10,000 feet, deeper than some Sierra Nevada mountains are tall. 

Food here is scarce, and a whale fall, as it’s known to scientists, can provide hundreds of animals with nutrients. Finding a whale carcass is the nutritional equivalent of winning the lottery for a deep-sea dweller. Some animals, like the populations of worms that slowly digest the whale’s bones, can subsist for decades on a single carcass.

They’re rare for scientists to find, but on Oct. 16, the crew of the Nautilus discovered a whale fall on the final dive of its 2019 expedition. They were exploring the Davidson Seamount, located within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, using a remote-operated vehicle—thankfully equipped with a camera to capture the rare scene. Among the many animals feasting on the fallen giant’s remains are eelpouts, deep-sea octopuses, crabs and grenadiers.

During the final dive of this year’s Nautilus expedition season, our team discovered a whale fall while exploring Davidson Seamount off central California’s coast with researchers from Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The skeletal remains of the whale lying on its back are estimated to be 4-5 meters long. The team is working to identify the species, but it is confirmed to be a baleen whale as indicated by baleen remaining along the whale’s jawbones.

While evidence of whale falls have been observed to remain on the seafloor for several years, this appears to be a relatively recent fall with baleen, blubber, and some internal organs remaining. The site also exhibits an interesting mid-stage of ecological succession, as both large scavengers like eel pouts are still stripping the skeleton of blubber, and bone-eating Osedax worms are starting to consume lipids (fats) from the bones. Other organisms seen onsite include crabs, grenadier, polychaetes, and deep-sea octopus.

Learn more about this expedition: https://nautiluslive.org/cruise/na117


E/V Nautilus is exploring unknown regions of the ocean seeking out new discoveries in biology, geology, and archaeology. Join us 24/7 for live video from the seafloor and to ask questions of our explorers currently aboard Nautilus: www.nautiluslive.org.

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