NOAA ship wraps up extensive Alaska expedition following fascinating discovery

NOAA ship wraps up extensive Alaska expedition following fascinating discovery
Published: Sep. 22, 2023 at 6:19 PM AKDT|Updated: Sep. 23, 2023 at 3:01 AM AKDT
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SEWARD, Alaska (KTUU) - A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ship docked in Seward this week following an extensive mission exploring and mapping underwater terrain in the Gulf of Alaska.

The 224-foot-long Okeanos Explorer is the nation’s only federally funded vessel dedicated entirely to researching the deep ocean. The crew of the decommissioned naval surveillance ship are responsible for mapping some of the world’s most unknown terrain — that of the world’s oceans. The data gathered are a vital tool for scientists worldwide, who tune in to the vessel’s livestreams to see the latest underwater footage or request environmental data gathered from a surveyed location.

That’s why it’s so surprising to the crew of the Okeanos that no one in the scientific community has reached out with information that could assist in the identification of an object that’s captured the imaginations of people the world over — the golden orb. Nearly a month after its discovery, the orb is still confounding scientists across the globe.

“That’s what’s been so captivating, I think — we just don’t know,” said Kasey Cantwell, NOAA Operations Chief for Expeditions and Exploration. “We don’t really know what it is. We’re not even sure what phylum it belongs to, or what higher taxonomic group it belongs to.”

The mystery of the golden orb began on Aug. 30 when the ship’s remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Deep Discoverer, piloted by scientists aboard the Okeanos, stumbled upon the captivating creature during an expedition called Seascape Alaska 5 in the Gulf of Alaska.

But like another of Alaska’s sought-after treasures, the discovery of the organism resting on a rocky outcrop some 3,300 meters under the surface came as a total surprise. It’s not the first Alaskan treasure to be shiny, gold and difficult to locate — but it is perhaps the most confusing.

Mysterious golden orb discovered in Gulf of Alaska
Mysterious golden orb discovered in Gulf of Alaska

Sam Candio, NOAA exploration coordinator, was one of the first to view the organism from the ship’s control room and become baffled by the soft-bodied entity.

“I don’t know what to think about this,” Candio said as operators guided the ROV closer to what has been dubbed the “golden orb.”

A screen on the ship showed the ROV’s articulated arm then reaching out to touch the surface of the organism, gently tearing at its delicate outer layer. A suction tool allowed the team to remove the glittering mass from its rocky home and place it into a special collection container to bring to the surface.

The shipboard team wondered aloud if it could be a type of sponge attachment, or perhaps a type of coral. Many are positing that it is a previously unseen egg case, similar to that of a shark or a skate. In its undisturbed state, a hole exposed the inside of the structure — and possibly its purpose.

“I’m team egg case now,” Candio said later of the discovery.

Samples collected by the ship are transferred to teams working at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History or at Oregon State University, depending on the type of specimen. The orb’s sample has been sent to Washington D.C. for the Smithsonian team to process.

But the orb was not the only interesting discovery during the Seascape Alaska 5 mission, which began in Kodiak on Aug. 23 and concluded on Sept. 16 in Seward.

We found a little bit of everything in our most recent expedition. There’s a lot of excitement about some new coral species that we’ve documented. We’ve found tons of different species of fish,” Candio said. “There’s a huge diversity of invertebrates. It was one of the most incredibly diverse and speciose areas that I think I’ve ever worked.”

In addition to the biological specimens observed, the missions undertaken by the Okeanos Explorer provide valuable underwater mapping information that can be utilized by the fishing, tourism, and even oil and gas industries.

As with all expeditions in Alaska, weather is a primary concern for the team.

There’s a difficulty in collecting data in most of the waters that we go to. We go to very remote places, and Alaska is very wild and very remote,” Candio said. “We kind of had to stay one step ahead as the Gulf of Alaska changed from its summer to its more fallen winter state.”

“One of the nice things that kind of helped with this challenge is how diverse Alaska is, and how we were able to find deep water in places that were protected. So even when we were running from weather we were able to find places that we can collect our data and make an impact,” Candio said.

The final stage of the Seascape Alaska expedition begins Sept. 23 when the Okeanos Explorer crew performs seafloor mapping while underway to San Francisco. Live video and data will be made available on the expedition website.