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See Inside February 2010

Life at the Bottom: The Prolific Afterlife of Whales

On the deep seafloor, the carcasses of the largest mammals give life to unique ecosystems



Doug Alves

On a routine expedition in 1987, oceanographers in the submersible Alvin were mapping the typically barren, nutrient-poor seafloor in the Santa Catalina Basin, off the shore of southern California. On the final dive of the trip, the scanning sonar detected a large object on the seafloor. Piercing through the abyssal darkness down at 1,240 meters, Alvin’s headlights revealed a 20-meter-long whale skeleton partly buried in sediment. On reviewing the dive video­tapes, expedition leader Craig Smith and his team saw that the skeleton was probably either a blue or a fin whale. The creature appeared to have been dead for years, but the bones and their surroundings teemed with life—wriggling worms, centimeter-size clams, little snails and limpets, and patches of white microbial mats. The skeleton was a thriving oasis in a vast, desertlike expanse.

Almost a year later Smith, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, returned for a proper study of the skeleton site. His team described several species previously unknown to science, plus some that had been observed only in unusual environments, such as at deep-sea hydrothermal vents.

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