Extraordinary Footage Shows Rare Whale Grave at Bottom of Antarctic Ocean

Researchers have released striking footage of a whale grave at the bottom of the Antarctic Ocean.

The research team stumbled across the carcass completely by chance during a media expedition. They realized what a rare find they had come across so took extensive, high-definition video footage, which they later analyzed.

What they captured turned out to be the furthest natural whale fall site from the equator that had ever been discovered.

The results of the observation were published in the journal Polar Biology in January.

"It's rare and extremely lucky to come across a natural whale fall site," Kathrin Bolstad, ecology professor at the Auckland University of Technology who led the study, told Newsweek. "There are hundreds of thousands of these sites on the seafloor at any given time, but it's very difficult to intentionally find one unless you are revisiting a known site, and even that is not always successful!"

Whale grave in Antarctica
Still from the footage of the whale carcass on the Antarctic ocean floor. Bolstad et al./NHK / National Geographic / ZDF / ARTE

The carcass—which the researchers discovered in 2017—was found at a depth of 3,100 feet off the West Antarctic Peninsula. This location is what makes the discovery even more unusual: the majority of whale fall sites have been reported in the north Pacific, off the coasts of California and Japan. Less than 5 percent of all whale fall sites have been reported near the poles, and this is the first site reported at such a high latitude.

The skeleton itself was enormous—the skull alone was about 6.5 feet long. The researchers identified it as having belonged to an Antarctic minke whale, a species that can grow up to about 35 feet, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Bolstad said that the skeleton had probably been on the seafloor for about one to two years. In that time, the carcass had been colonized by a rich ecosystem of aquatic life. "Most whale fall sites will have many dozens, maybe hundreds of different species taking advantage of this sudden food bonanza," Bolstad said. "Many more species were probably present than we were able to see on camera, but those we did see were still fascinating to observe!"

To observe this rich ecosystem, Bolstad and her team collected two hours of HD footage, which they subsequently reviewed in details to identify the various different species present. Among them included sea fleas, bristle worms and mucousy deposits that may indicate the presence of a bone-eating worm.

Whale grave close up
Still from the footage showing a close-up of the whale carcass, covered in a unique ecosystem of marine life. Bolstad et al./NHK / National Geographic / ZDF / ARTE

The body of a dead whale provides a bountiful feast for deep sea communities that can last for decades. The abundance of different species that are drawn to the site forms a whole new food web around the whale, which eventually strips the carcass to the bare bones.

Fallen whale carcasses like this go through four recognized stages of decomposition. "This one was in the late 'opportunist-enrichment' phase, the second phase, where most of the soft tissue has been removed by large scavengers, but the skeleton and remaining soft tissues are teeming with smaller animals that are scavenging, settling onto the bones, or are there to make a meal of the other critters gathered there," said Bolstad.

Fallen whale carcass
Still from the footage showing the fallen whale carcass. These act as a source of food for decades within ocean ecosystems. Bolstad et al./NHK / National Geographic / ZDF / ARTE

The footage provides a snapshot of this successional process, and the different species that co-exist there. "There is still a huge amount to learn about whale-fall sites and animals, including many species that are not yet known to science," she added.

However, opportunities to do submersible dives in Antarctica are few and far between. Bolstad described it as "a rare treat."

"It's most likely that we caught a very lucky snapshot glimpse of a whale fall site no one had ever seen before, or will again," she said.

Update 02/24/23 9.15 a.m. ET: This article has been updated with additional context throughout.

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