16 Things BuzzFeed Doesn’t Know About The Ocean

By Christie Wilcox | August 23, 2013 8:00 am

Recently, BuzzFeed came out with what sounded like a really interesting article: 16 Things No One Knows About The Ocean. I’ve been a fan of BuzzFeed lists before, and some are humorously accurate. But when I clicked through to read the list, I was disappointed. This wasn’t their usual hilarious-because-you-know-it’s-true-even-if-you-don’t-want-to-admit-it style post, or even an awe-inspiring-fact roundup. It was mostly, well, wrong.

The post begins: “Welcome to the last frontier on Earth. Sure, the oceans are terrifying and the Kraken might have been real, but the things we don’t know could fill a thousand documentaries on the Discovery Channel.” Perhaps the allusion to Discovery is all the more fitting given their recent penchant for faux marine science, but that’s no excuse for this shoddy list riddled with factual errors and pseudoscience. I know BuzzFeed community content is produced by a suite of random people, but come on—they need to have some kind of quality control! As a marine scientist, I just couldn’t let it slide.

So here is a point-by-point explanation of what BuzzFeed doesn’t apparently know about the oceans:

May a swarm of “ocean bugs” remind you that they are important, too.

1. We have identified around 250,000 marine species (once you remove duplicates, which is a whole other issue). This is… uh… some of the species in the ocean.

See, the trouble with saying “two-thirds of all marine life remain unidentified” is that it implies we know how much marine life there is. One estimate awhile ago suggested there were 10 million species. A more recent and presumably accurate one says closer to 1 million, which means we have IDed somewhere near a third of them, hence the 2/3 undiscovered guesstimation. The scientists actually said that based on what we do know, “25%–80% of species remained to be described.” Or, as another paper put it, “between one-third and two-thirds of marine species may be undescribed.” They also noted that if current trends continue, we will ID the vast majority in the next century.

Even still, these are all ESTIMATES. We don’t actually know how many species we haven’t identified until we, well, identify them. Current estimates are mathematical models based on species discovery rates and leading taxonomic experts, with some statistical hand-waiving to produce a number. Only time will tell how accurate such estimates are. I’m nitpicking on this one, but for the record, this was a fairly good start, considering.

I wouldn’t invoke Cthulhu. The great one gets mad when his name is used in vain.

2. Actually, scientists know full well what made that sound. It was an icequake. Now wasn’t that easy?

As NOAA and Oregon State University seismologist Robert Dziak explained to Wired: “Ice breaking up and cracking is a dominant source of natural sound in the southern ocean. Each year there are tens of thousands of what we call ‘icequakes’ created by the cracking and melting of sea ice and ice calving off glaciers into the ocean.”

And as far as Chuthulu… Wired says: “[Dziak] confirmed that the Bloop really was just an icequake — and it turns out that’s kind of what they always thought it was. The theory of a giant animal making noises loud enough to be heard across the Pacific was more fantasy than science.”

This isn’t a beautiful image—it’s a depressing one.

3. Ok, yes, this is the biggest Atlantic halibut on record, and there may be more of this size out there somewhere. But with the way we fish for this and other species, there won’t be for long.

Atlantic halibut can live in excess of 50 years, with females growing faster and larger than males. Trouble is, their slow-but-steady reproductive strategy makes them highly vulnerable to overfishing. Here in the US we overexploited fisheries for halibut so completely that even with heavy management, no recovery has occurred. We’re not alone. According to the IUCN, Atlantic halibut are endangered, with a high risk of extinction in the wild. Lots of countries have been forced to close fisheries. Studies as far back as the 1980s found that the ecological pressure of the halibut fishery in Norway was affecting the fish, changing how they grow and reproduce in the area. Even in 1988 it was suggested that the changes seen in these fish may indicate “exploitation”. Now there is little question: the Atlantic halibut are in trouble. They’re so rare and threatened that Norway scientists (and others) have spent the past few decades figuring out how to farm them, and now, the country produces thousands of pounds of aquacultured halibut every year.

I’m not excited that this guy caught a record-setting prize—I’m sad he killed a beautiful fish that was likely swimming before I was born, and with it, the millions of offspring it could have produced every year. If we keep taking the large, breeding fish out of the population, what chance do halibut or any other species really have of recovering?

More like: “we might not have been able to think of anything better to put at number 4”

4. Ok, this is just pathetic. The author took a part of a factoid from #1 and put it as its own thing. How is something we “might” not know even worth it’s own number? It’s even the same linked source. Maybe not wrong, but definitely lame.

Let’s see, things we don’t know about cetaceans that are way more interesting than that:

  • Why whales sing (no, seriously. Other than humpbacks, we know next to nothing about whale communications. And even with them there’s a lot more to learn.)
  • How whales sing (literally. We have a good idea when it comes to dolphin sound production, but the baleen whales? Not so much. They have a larynx that “appears to play a role in sound production”, but seeing as they don’t exhale like we do when they sing, we don’t really how how it all works).
  • What species produces the 52 Hertz song (or if he’s a hybrid! or a deformity!) 
  • What whales can hear, and what they can’t (just how annoying is our sonar or boat traffic?)

Heck, some awesome things we JUST discovered:

And all the author could come up with is that maybe, you know, it’s possible, in theory, that we, uh, I think, haven’t discovered a few species?

Kinda weird to say we don’t have it mapped, then show us, well, a map of it all…

5. It’s not that we haven’t mapped it—obviously, or BuzzFeed wouldn’t have a map to show us. It’s that we haven’t mapped it at certain resolutions.

The 125 year comment comes from a review paper looking at what it would take for boats dragging mapping sonar to cover the ocean floor at a resolution of 200 m, which is pretty damn fine-scale when we’re talking thousands of square miles. What maps we do have come from satellite data, with a resolution between 20 and 50 km. Satellite mapping isn’t that bad—for much of the ocean, it gives us a lot of vital information. For the most part, scientists aren’t suggesting we scour every inch with sonar-lugging boats anyway—they propose improvements in satellite tech to get finer resolution, which definitely won’t take nearly as long.

This makes my fist clench with rage.

6. I swear to Cthulhu, I will literally punch the next person I encounter in person who uses the argument “well, 95% of the ocean is unexplored, so… you know, this-thing-that-we-know-isn’t-real might exist.”

When scientists say “unexplored,” they mean something very specific: unseen by human eyes. That doesn’t mean we know nothing about it. We know things like temperature, salinity, currents, even oceanographic variables like pH or carbon and nitrogen availability. We know what kinds of environments there are, and with the exploring we have done, we have a good idea of what kinds of animals that live in the places we haven’t been. Of course there is much to discover, which is what makes the unexplored depths so fascinating! It’s also what makes using them to justify pseudoscience or myth so much more disappointing.

The 95% isn’t distributed equally around the world. When it comes to our oceans, around 85% of the total area and 90% of the volume are the dark, cold environments we tend to refer collectively to as the deep sea. Sure, we have yet to walk divers across the ocean basins or send submersibles down every trench. But everything from the surface to ~600 feet deep around our populated land masses? We’ve got that covered many times over. I’m guessing when it comes to coastal, shallow environments, we’ve laid eyes on closer to 90% of it. Heck, for snorkeling depths, we’ve probably laid several thousand pairs of eyes on each square foot. This means while there are a ton of neat, deep sea creatures waiting to be discovered, shallow, coastal species have pretty much all been spotted (now it’s just a matter of getting the names right).

As for mermaids… *sigh* (I can hear David Shiffman shaking his head from here). I feel like a bad older cousin telling a five year old that Santa isn’t real. I’m sorry, but it’s just not possible. Mermaids are myth and legend, nothing more. If mermaids existed, there would be a fossil record. There would be evidence of any kind. And to put it simply, they’d live in the same shallow environments where we like to snorkel, scuba, and fish, places where a swimming ape could surface for air, have food readily available, and have complex habitat to hide in—a.k.a., that 5% of the ocean we have very much explored.

How awesome are these?!

7. I’m not really sure what this one is doing here—this isn’t something we don’t know, it’s an awesome, super cool fact about the ocean that we do know. These things are amazing. Just look at this one guy’s pictures from an underwater river in Mexico!

These underwater water features exist because there are pockets of water whose chemical makeup is very different from the the water surrounding them: they’re super saline. Such salty water occurs when salt deposits come into contact with seawater and dissolve, forming what scientists call “brines” many times saltier than seawater. According to NOAA scientists, these heavy brines flow out of the seafloor in channels that result in puddles, pools, and even lakes of brine that are tens of kilometers long.

These supersalty brines do contain creatures found nowhere else, but not in the way you might think. Most species can’t survive in such intense salinity. There are no fish, no crabs, no urchins or clams. Instead, diverse colonies of microbes flourish. Some brine pools have microbe concentrations up to a hundred times higher than the waters around them! And on the underwater shores of these brine pools, specialized species of mussels with symbiotic bacteria grow. It’s true that some pools have mussels and others don’t, and exactly why is unknown, but that misses the point of how amazing the stuff is that we do know about the pools!

Not “likely”. I’d bet my life on it.

8. It’s not just likely—it’s as close to a certainty as science can provide. There has been a new species of shark, skate, or ray discovered every two weeks or so for the past decade. Heck, we just found a new species of hammerhead off South Carolina this month. And, overall, the vast majority of new species discoveries are occurring in the deep sea, so to say there are “likely more new deep-sea shark species than even this fishing expedition tuned up with last year” is understating the obvious.

The expedition in question, by the way, “turned up with” what may be eight species new to science, and dozens of otherwise rare deep sea species, all of which were bycatch from a deep trawling fishery.

We already fish the deep sea, and we’re overfishing it.

9. It’s strange that #8 talked about sharks discovered through a deep sea fishery, yet #9 seems to suggest such fisheries don’t exist. They do, and have for the better part of the past forty years. Not only do we have deep sea fisheries, we have a very good idea of what they do to the ecosystem.

Take the orange roughy, for example. Renamed from ‘slimeheads’ to sound more palatable, fishermen discovered massive aggregations of these large, sluggish fish on seamounts off New Zealand and Australia in the 1970s. These remarkable deep sea fish can live longer than we do and can take 30 years to reach sexual maturity. In the 1980s, fishermen dragged tens of thousands of pounds of these tasty fish out of the ocean every year using bottom trawls that literally leave scorch marks in the sea bed. They travelled from seamount to seamount, dragging up entire ecosystems to haul in their catch. The poor roughy didn’t stand a chance. Populations buckled under the intense fishing pressure, eventually collapsing entirely. There are now less than 20% of the roughy that there once were, giving them the dubious honor of being the first commercially fished Australian species to wind up on the country’s endangered species list. The story is echoed by other deep sea fisheries. Here in Hawaii, we managed to overfish the pelagic armorhead off our seamounts in less than a decade, and it remains commercially extinct. Everywhere our trawlers touch, we gouge tracts of land that contained hundreds of species, leaving only empty scars on the deep sea floor to remind us of the diversity that once lived there. These communities take decades, if not centuries, to come back. I can tell you exactly what a ghost shark fishery would do: it would destroy deep sea ecosystems.

It’s not just the methods used—deep sea species themselves are particularly poor fishery targets. The deep sea is cold, dark, and generally inhospitable. To survive, species have had to adapt. As Elliot Norse and his colleagues explained in a 2012 review of the sustainability of deep sea fisheries, “Depth and temperature directly affect fish growth rates, which tie to a range of life history characteristics…including delayed maturity, high maximum age and low average productivity.” Unfortunately, these very same traits make them especially susceptible to overfishing. “The life-history characteristics of deep-sea species place them at the extreme end of the vulnerability spectrum,” says marine biologist Callum Roberts. “What these characteristics point to is that deep-water fisheries are repeating the process of sequential stock depletion that has been the hallmark of shallow-water fisheries. The difference is that depletion is more rapid, and recovery will be much slower and even less certain than in shallow water.”

We don’t lack data on the effects of deep sea fisheries—what we don’t know is how long it will take for the communities we trawl to recover, or if they even can. While many scientists think we need to halt deep sea fishing altogether, we lack actionable solutions to our  growing seafood problems. More than 85% of the world’s fisheries are depleted or collapsed, and our need for fish protein is only expected to increase. Aquaculture may be a good start, but unless we manage our fisheries more responsibly, there won’t be any fish left for us to deplete, even in the deep sea.

We know a surprising amount, considering we’ve never seen one alive.

10. Define “a lot”.

Colossal squid were first discovered by science in 1925 when two tentacles were found in the stomach of a sperm whale. These tentacles were clearly new and unique—colossal squid, unlike their relatives the giant squid, have sharp, rotating hooks in addition to suckers along their arms. Based on the size of tentacles and specimens discovered since, it’s believed these amazing squid can reach in excess of 40 feet long and weigh in at half a ton. Though they’re not longer than giant squid, they are stockier, thus by weight are the biggest squid on Earth. They live in the deep, deep sea, thousands of feet into the darkness in the ocean surrounding Antarctica. But these monstrous beasts aren’t agile predators—instead, they spend most of their time sitting and waiting for an unfortunate deep sea fish to wander a little too close.

Their lack of speed is unfortunate, given that for sperm whales in the southern ocean, these massive squid make up 77% of the whales’ diet. Smaller individuals and juveniles are preyed upon by a number of different deep sea fish, including several species of sharks. For all their size and might, they’re remarkably vulnerable. Other interesting facts—they don’t reproduce the same way giant squid do. They lack the specialized copulatory organ, which suggests they do it the old fashioned way: with a penis.

That might not be a lot, but it’s about as much as we know about a number of species of squid, and a heck of a lot more than we know for many deep sea species.

NO. Just. NO.

11. One word: NO.

I would say ask Brian Switek about this one, but I’m afraid if he has to yet again go through what is wrong with this, he might quite literally explode with frustration. So, I’ll summarize for him (click for his more elegant version):

A) There is no evidence whatsoever that giant cephalopods existed in the Triassic ocean. “No exceptionally preserved body, no fossilized tentacle hooks, no beak — nothing,” as Switek explains succinctly. Though the fossil record for these soft-bodied creatures isn’t stellar, we do have fossilized squid parts from the era before, so if monster cephalopods were around in the Triassic, we probably would have found some evidence of their existence.

B) The “evidence” cited for such a creature is that groups of dead marine reptiles have been found, and scientists haven’t determined their cause of death. One person looked at these piles of bones and decided that it sort of looked like a tentacle, much like one might see a dragon or a face in passing formations of clouds. This led this person, for reasons that every other scientist on the planet cannot fathom, to say that there were giant cephalopods that not only dominated the Triassic seas, they were so smart that they made self-portraits. To be clear, most species on the planet today cannot recognize themselves in a mirror (even we can’t until we’re 18 months old or so), and there is exactly one that creates self-reflective art: us. So somehow, we’re supposed to believe that just because one guy thinks a pile of bones kinda looks like a tentacle, giant killer cephalopods with human-level-intelligence were once a thing, in the complete absence of any other evidence whatsoever.

Like I said: no.

That is not underwater.

12. This one, too, should be on a list of 16 awesome things we DO know about the ocean, not the other way around. Underwater waterfalls (also called “cascades”) are nothing new—like underwater pools and rivers, they form when waters differing in density meet. The largest underwater cataracts (read: huge waterfalls) are found where cold and warm waters meet. Since cold water is denser than hot water, it sinks. We know of many more than seven—these waterfalls occur anywhere where different density waters descend down slopes, though many are much, much slower than the waterfalls we know and love on land. Like terrestrial waterfalls, they can form and disappear based on geologic conditions and weather patterns, and scientists fear that climate change will irrevocably alter these natural phenomena, which spells serious trouble for deep sea species that rely on the flow of nutrients these waterfalls provide.

Now that is an impressive underwater waterfall. (taken from the book “Invitation to Oceanography” by Paul R. Pinet)

Some of these underwater cataracts are truly incredible. The Denmark Strait cataract is truly the largest waterfall in the world. Its cold waters descend three-and-a-half times (not six) as far as Venezuela’s Angel Falls (usually cited as the tallest waterfall on Earth), and rushes with a remarkable flow of 175 million cubic feet of water per second (2700 times Niagara Falls).

We have a pretty good idea of what’s in the water. Though if you mean the sea floor… that’s a more interesting story.

13. While you can say it’s unclear exactly how many minerals could be harvested from the ocean, they’re not coming from the water—they’re coming from the sea floor. We don’t know what’s out there any more than we know what’s present on any given tract of land, but we can get a good idea from studying sediments and cores and seeing what we find—and that we have done.

The idea of mining the ocean is nothing new. We’ve been discussing the idea of deep sea mining for the better part of the past century. Several countries sent out expeditions to find deposits of important metals like cobalt and nickel, and for the most part, they returned finding far less than they expected. By the mid 1980s, the US had spent upwards of $650 million with little to show for it, and they, like most nations, all but abandoned deep sea mining.

More recently, however, new research has reinvigorated the idea. Japan and China have turned to hydrothermal vents for precious metals, highly sought after because of their use in electronics. The company Nautilus Minerals Inc. was granted the first mining lease for such deposits at a site known as Solwara 1, off Papua New Guinea, where it was set to start mining copper, gold and silver, but calls for caution from scientists and concern from local communities delayed the launch. Citing cash flow issues, Nautilus suspended the project in late 2012, and has yet to come to an agreement with national officials to continue the work.

While the potential for resources is intriguing, I’m with the scientists that expressed hesitance—mining like this could have huge impacts on local communities, and without a good idea of exactly what those impacts are, it seems like jumping the gun to start mining.

Possible, but extremely unlikely.

14. Yes, in 2001, a Canadian company took sonar images of an area of sea floor off of Cuba with structures that appear to be strangely geometric. What this brief summary doesn’t tell you is that the marine engineer who discovered the site, Pauline Zalitzki, explicitly cautioned against the Atlantis comparison: “It’s a really wonderful structure which really looks like it could have been a large urban centre. However, it would be totally irresponsible to say what it was before we have evidence.”

Other scientists have been far clearer. Professor of Oceanography Robert Ballard stated simply that at 2,000 to 2,500 ft down, the site is “too deep”. “I’d be surprised if it was human. You have to ask yourself, how did it get there? I’ve looked at a lot of sonar images in my life, and it can be sort of like looking at an ink blot — people can sometimes see what they want to see. I’ll just wait for a bit more data.”

Similarly, marine geologist Manuel Iturralde urged people not to jump to conclusions. “We have some figures which are extremely unusual but nature is much richer than we think.” “Nature is able to create some really unimaginable structures.” Given how long ago such a city would have had to exist, anthropologist Michael Faught says it’s very unlikely that the site represents a human settlement. “It would be real advanced for anything we would see in the New World for that time frame. The structures are out of time and out of place.”

So while this is perhaps one of the few things on this list that actually represents something we don’t know about the ocean, let’s not get too excited about its cultural implications. It’s most likely a weird geological feature—which, to many scientists I know, would be an amazing riddle to solve on its own.

15. There is one thing they are sure of: it’s not aliens.

This unbelievable image comes from Swedish treasure hunter Peter Lindberg. When he released sonar images of a “near-circular” formation from the bottom of the Baltic Sea, he got the world talking about everything from stonehenge to flying saucers. But scientists weren’t buying it. Popular Mechanics interviewed Hanumant Singh, a researcher with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, for the empirical perspective:

First, he says, if you look carefully, you can see a reflection of the circular formation on the right side of the image. Since side-scan sonar is taken with two instruments that bounce acoustic waves in opposite directions from the boat, a feature on one side shouldn’t affect the image on the other side. “This means you’ve got ‘cross-talk,’ in which one channel is electrically contaminating the other,” Singh says. In other words, the sonar instruments aren’t wired properly. Strike one, he says.

Strike two: The black horizontal lines going through the image show that sonar signals are dropping out (that is, the instruments aren’t detecting them), further calling the measurements into question, Singh says. Finally, he says, the edges of the image, just beyond the circular formation, are gray, meaning the sonar couldn’t tell what was there. That shows the sonar isn’t calibrated well enough to trust, Singh says. “That’s strike three.”

So the circular formation may not even actually exist. And even if it does, other scientists were quick to point out that “it could be something as mundane as a circular rock outcropping or the result of fluid or gas venting.” They explained that venting causes circular depressions all around the world, thousands of which have been cataloged. There are no alien aircraft here, folks.

The “biggest unknown” is not an unknown at all.

16. I don’t even know where to start on this one. It’s clear anthropomorphism—after all, I’m pretty sure the ocean doesn’t “want” or “not want” anything. But what really bothers me is the idea that we have no clue “how to go about studying the ocean.” Studying the ocean is what marine scientists have been doing for centuries. New and incredible technological advances allow us more insight into our watery depths every year. It just seems insulting to insinuate that all of those scientists don’t really know what they’re doing. And yes, “we need a bunch of submarines that can take some serious pressure and shit,” but we have those. Hell, James Cameron, a filmmaker, traveled down 7 miles into deepest submarine canyon on Earth. IN PERSON.

Oceanographic research isn’t being impeded by a lack of technology or knowledge, it’s being impeded by a lack of funding. If we want to know more about the oceans, how about we start by restoring the budgets of agencies like the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration or the National Science Foundation instead of continuing to hack them to bits?

No, respect it because we do know.

17. I really want to support the “bonus” message, because it’s a good sentiment: respect the sea, guys. But we shouldn’t be respecting it because of what we don’t know. We should respect our marine ecosystems because of what we do know about them.

The oceans cover 70% of our planet’s surface, yet account for only 10% of its protected area. The tiny organisms that live in them provide 50% of the oxygen in our atmosphere that we need to breathe, meanwhile ocean waters sop up a third of the excess carbon we produce. Mangroves, salt marshes, reefs, and other aquatic ecosystems act as natural storm buffers, pollution filters, and construction materials. More than a billion people rely on seafood as their main source of protein. That’s not even getting into the billions of dollars spent worldwide on coastal habitats for housing and recreation.

Yet we know that all of these wonderful services that the ocean provides us for free are in jeopardy. Nearly two-thirds of the world’s population lives within 40 miles of the coast, pouring an unprecedented amount of waste, pollutants, and sediments into the most productive marine ecosystems. Our wanton abuse of coastal habitats has led to the loss of over 50% of our nation’s wetlands and an 80% loss of coastal habitats in Europe. More than three-quarters of the world’s fisheries are overexploited or already collapsed, and scientists predict that by 2050, the rest may follow. It’s not just imperative that we take charge of ocean stewardship—it’s vital that we take drastic action to fix what we have broken before it’s too late.

In reality, the biggest unknown about the ocean is just how much of the dazzling array of biodiversity within in it will be left for me to show my grandchildren.

That is why I am being so hard on this BuzzFeed article. I know that BuzzFeed isn’t exactly a credible source. But as of right now, this single article has over 2300 Facebook likes and 200 tweets. That’s a huge audience, and a huge missed opportunity for education and outreach. Imagine if, instead, BuzzFeed had created a completely solid article containing sixteen real facts about the ocean—they could have used the incredible brine pools and waterfalls, and talked about the bizarre creatures of the deep. Instead of promoting pseudoscience or exploitation of natural resources, they could have inspired wonder and fascination. They could have drawn the thousands of readers in, explaining the threats our ocean ecosystems face and what we, as individuals, can do to help. Because the worst part of all of this is that you don’t need to misinterpret or fake anything to make the ocean mysterious and magical. Having spent what accumulates to days underwater scuba diving, I can attest that the ocean is awe-inspiring the way it is. If only BuzzFeed had shown that.

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About Christie Wilcox

Dr. Christie Wilcox is a science writer based in the greater Seattle area. Her bylines include National Geographic, Popular Science, and Quanta. Her debut book, Venomous, released August 2016 (Scientific American/FSG Books). To learn more about her life and work, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.


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