From April 20 to July 10, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its partners will probe the depths of the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean. It's an area that's still poorly understood, and researchers are using the opportunity to build baseline information about the geology and wildlife in and around the deepest part of the ocean.
The three-leg mission will bring light to extreme habitats, sponge communities, mud volcanoes, hydrothermal vents and some of the planet's strangest creatures. To access these bone-crushing depths, the NOAA team relies on the trusty Deep Discoverer ROV, which has provided stunning images and video of our planet's deepest, darkest secrets. You can join the team live as it conducts dives.
Already, the expedition is revealing strange and beautiful creatures like this holothurian, which was photographed on a recent dive. But that's just the start. Here's a look at what the research team has encountered since the expedition set sail.
This translucent seapig doesn't keep any secrets, including what it ate for lunch.
Seapigs earned their nicknames because they are plump, pink and possess short limbs. They feast on particles plucked from the mud they munch on. They're typically found on the ocean floor in large groups. This particular species sports antennae-like projections and is a little less pig-like than its cousins. NOAA researchers aren't sure if this creature falls in the genus Amperima or Peniagone.
An anglerfish tucked away in a hiding spot awaits its next meal.
These deep-sea fish use a lure to attract prey and ambush them, swallowing them in one bite. This angler's lure is a round, white structure resting between its eyes.
Scientists spotted this flashy jellyfish during a dive on April 24 at a depth of over 12,000 feet. It's thought to be a hydromedusa belonging to the genus Crossota. The red lines appear to be radial canals that connect to bright yellow gonads.
Predatory tunicates spend their days attached to rocks feeding on small animals that swim into their hood-shaped mouths. If you've seen a Venus flytrap consume prey, you've got a pretty good idea of how a predatory tunicate eats.
A dearth of mates is also no problem for the hermaphroditic deep-sea dweller. Every tunicate can reproduce by itself if conditions warrant.
A sea anemone is at home on top of a hermit crab. The anemone secretes a shell of sorts for the crab, which it then inhabits instead of a shell.
The symbiotic relationship between anemones and other species of hermit crabs that rely on shells for protection is well documented. Crabs that outgrow their shells will often transfer the anemone from the old shell to the new one, forging a lifelong partnership.
An oblique-banded snapper, left, and moray eel share the limelight.
An enteropneust, or acorn worm, in the process of leaving behind its characteristic fecal coil on the bottom of the ocean in the Sirena Canyon.
The front end of these animals is shaped like an acorn, and it consists of a proboscis and collar that it likely uses to burrow. This particular enteropneust ingests sediment and filters out nutrients much like an earthworm.
Scientists spotted this Chimaera, or rabbitfish, near a site known as the Northwest Guam Seamount. Chimaera's closest living relatives are sharks, although they branched off from sharks some 400 million years ago.
While it isn't uncommon to find sea urchins attached to elevated rocks in an attempt to snap food from ocean currents, NOAA scientists aren't quite sure why so many have chosen to gather here. Prior to this particular dive, scientists hadn't observed such a large concentration of urchins in a single location.
Even in the deepest, darkest, most inaccessible location on the planet, the impact of human civilization is still evident on the ocean floor.