Although blue is the color most often associated with the world’s oceans, black is a far more apt descriptor for nearly 90 percent of our planet’s waters. Descending beneath the surface, the seemingly endless, light-flooded blue quickly fades, leaving nothing but utter darkness by a depth of roughly 200 meters (650 feet). Here, the largely unexplored and perpetually dark deep sea begins—a hidden, dreamlike world filled with fantastically weird creatures: gliding glass squid, flitting sea butterflies, and lurking viperfish.
Last winter, photographer and marine biologist Solvin Zankl joined a scientific expedition led by the GEOMAR research center in Germany to conduct deep sea biodiversity assessments around the islands of Cape Verde. The team explored the depths with cameras and lights, and used nets to bring an array of strange deep sea creatures to the surface. In his shipboard photography studio—outfitted with special aquariums and a powerful microscope—Zankl set out to capture the unique features and behaviors of these otherworldly organisms. This photo series offers rare glimpses of some of those creatures and the adaptations that enable them to survive and thrive in one of the planet’s most challenging environments.
Given its transparent body, the glass octopus, Vitreledonella richardi, remains one of the most elusive creatures of the deep sea. Rare photographs such as this reveal an array of opaque organs and a glimpse of its unusually shaped eyes. Scientists think the upward tilt and elongation of its rectangular eyes are adaptations to help the glass octopus avoid predation.
These photos originally appeared in bioGraphic, an online magazine featuring beautiful and surprising stories about nature and sustainability.
Bumping into a common fangtooth can be a deadly mistake for squid and smaller fish.
Because the predator has poor eyesight, it relies on the motion-sensing cells along its lateral line—an enlarged sensory strip that runs the length of the fish’s body—to detect prey. Juveniles lose the bright, plankton-filtering gills seen on this individual when they mature and descend into some of the deepest depths of any known fish, often more than 5,000 meters (16,000 feet) beneath the ocean surface.
Male copepods—tiny aquatic crustaceans—of the genus Sapphirina glint like colorful jewels one moment and are nearly invisible the next.
Scientists only learned the details of this sea sapphire’s vanishing act a year ago. Cellular material measuring just nanometers in thickness separate the crystal plates of the copepod’s exoskeleton. The varying thickness of this material is what determines which wavelengths of light reflect back, and therefore which colors we see—if we see any at all.