Putting the Deep Sea on Display
Aquarists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium have spent years learning how to keep deep-sea animals alive in captivity for a new exhibit. In doing so, they’ve gleaned insights about life in the abyss and our connection to it.
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The deep sea can sometimes feel like another planet. It’s cold, dark, largely unexplored, and inaccessible without sophisticated machinery. It is also home to a wide variety of other-worldly-looking creatures such as the vampire squid, barreleye, and salmon snailfish.
However, the deep sea is no alien world, says Alicia Bitondo, a senior aquarist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California and one of only a handful of aquarists specializing in deep-sea species. Over the past few years, Bitondo and her collaborators at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) have pulled dozens of deep-sea fishes and invertebrates from the ocean’s abyss in preparation for the world’s first large-scale deep-sea exhibit—one that will show people how connected they are to the deep sea.
Tending to those recruits back on land has been a challenge, especially since scientists knew next to nothing about the biology and behavior of many of them and had to learn how to keep them alive in captivity. Recently, Bitondo became the first aquarist to breed a salmon snailfish. One of her breeders was rescued by the aquarium after being caught unintentionally by a deep-sea trawler. OG (which stands for “original gangster,” since he was the aquarium’s first snailfish) initially refused to eat in his new home. After much trial and error, Bitondo determined she could stimulate his appetite by tickling his whisker-like pectoral fins, which are equipped with taste buds. Since then, OG has thrived and Bitondo has grown attached. “He might be my favorite,” she says.
OG’s offspring will soon be on display as part of the exhibit, Into the Deep: Exploring our Undiscovered Ocean, along with several other species that have never been exhibited before, including the bloody belly comb jelly and deep-sea siphonophores. Through the exhibit, which opens in April 2022, the aquarium hopes to introduce people to the wonders of the deep sea and show them that the habitat isn’t as alien as they may have thought. “We don’t want people to think of the deep sea as something that is inaccessible,” says Bitondo. “By bringing it to them, we hope to make that connection and have people realize that while [deep-sea animals] may look strange, they are still Earth creatures.” She adds, “Seeing these animals in person will create an experience that will hopefully be memorable and inspire people to want to conserve this kind of habitat.”
Producers/Directors/Editors: Annie Roth and Alex Goetz
Camera operators: Annie Roth, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Monterey Bay Aquarium, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Emily Harwitz, Brian Phan, Graycen Wheeler
Hakai Magazine producer: Meigan Henry