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Top 10 Fantastic Finds Made by NOAA

Jana is an amateur archaeologist who examined her first rock at the age of 2. She likes to group ancient discoveries together in fun lists.

Scientists in all fields make up the NOAA team.

Scientists in all fields make up the NOAA team.


NOAA stands for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They aim to understand and predict changes in the environment through cutting-edge technology and research. Given how active the agency is, many of its greatest discoveries sometimes happen by accident. Others are done with great intent and diligence, such as finding lost fleets and even proving the existence of a creature scientists are yet to see in the wild.

1. The Deepest Noise

Curious as to what the deepest point in the ocean sounded like, NOAA lowered a hydrophone into the Challenger Deep canyon. The specially designed microphone dropped 7 miles below the surface of the Pacific Ocean and was left to record in the pitch black environment for three weeks. When scientists retrieved the flash drive, they honestly expected to listen to a very long and boring track of possibly nothing. To their surprise, it wasn't quiet at all. The spot rumbled with earthquakes, songs of whales, ship propellers and even a typhoon tearing up the surface. This sea symphony was also very clear. Common sense might suggest that the lowest known point in the ocean would not only be Zen quiet but should sound have reached it, any such lost whale moans or storms would be muffled. Not at all. The whales were so distinct that the species could be identified, and, despite the depth, the typhoon left a royal ruckus on the recording.

The Rio was found near the iconic Golden Gate bridge.

The Rio was found near the iconic Golden Gate bridge.

2. The Golden Gate Disaster

The SS City of Rio de Janeiro regularly brought Asian immigrants to San Francisco. For 128 people looking for a better life, the ship tragically turned into their grave instead. In 1901, the steamer arrived at the harbor but sailed into a dense fog that was clogging the Golden Gate strait. The weather doomed the vessel as the most lethal shipping disaster in the city's history. After rocks shaved off a little too much, the ship bubbled under within ten minutes. The wreck went down thirty years before the construction of the famous Golden Gate bridge, but that was where NOAA archaeologists made the elusive discovery, just a short distance away from the iconic landmark. Sonar imaging revealed a broken ship still being destroyed. The front half was at the bottom of a deep slope, and a growing layer of mud will eventually crush the Rio. The depth and powerful currents prevented any attempt at a salvage operation.

3. The Purple Thing

A NOAA submarine studying the bottom of the ocean came face to face with the unknown. Nestled between crabs and clams at a depth of 5,000 feet, hovered an ethereal orb. The floaty thing was soft and purple and was unlike anything the experienced crew had ever seen. If this was even an animal, researchers hazard that it might be a mollusk-type creature. However, nothing in the Pacific, where it was found, resembles the lavender wonder. If it is indeed a slug, this might be a new species of something called a pleurobranch. These creatures are amorphous, which means they lack a specific form but none flash this perky color. Charmed by the odd wonder, the researchers had to have it and sucked the two-inch-wide blob on board. During examination, another surprise occurred when the thingy peeled open by itself and became two lobes. Definite identification might take months or even years.

4. The Tugboat Mystery

Almost a century ago, a tugboat vanished and entered the books as one of the ten most mystifying ship mysteries on record. A U.S. Navy boat, the USS Conestoga left its California shipyard in 1921 with 56 souls heading to American Samoa. When they never arrived, the reaction was epic. It triggered the biggest search in the 20th century (later eclipsed by the 1937 hunt for Amelia Earhart) but it was all in vain. In 2009, NOAA ran a sonar survey to map the ocean's curves and bumps when one feature near San Francisco's Farallon Islands didn't look natural. Working alongside the Navy, they finally identified the missing tugboat from its size, propeller design, porthole placements and a 50-caliber deck gun. Once hailed as one of the most powerful tugboats, she is now prime real estate for marine life and will be left in place.

5. The Monster Sponge

Another surprise discovery awaited researchers in Hawaiian waters. Their remote vehicles were buzzing the depths at nearly 5 kilometers looking for corals and sponges when they found the latter - in overkill mode. A single sponge, looking like an oddly-shaped brain, rose unexpectedly into the camera's view and human awareness. The first of its kind to be seen, it is roughly the size of a minibus. While its exact age will be difficult to determine, the sponge is likely to be very ancient since other known giant species can live past 2,000 years. The new monster-sized animal is the biggest of them all, so much so that it has its own unique ecosystem.

6. The Twice A-Bombed Ship

The USS Independence was an aircraft carrier during World War II. She fought the good fight in the Pacific until the conflict came to an end. Afterwards, she was given the duty of sucking up two atomic explosions in the name of science at Bikini Atoll. Remarkably, the carrier survived both times. The plucky ship then participated in radiation decontamination research in San Francisco before being sunk on purpose in 1951. Working together with Boeing, NOAA located the historic battleship in the marine sanctuary near the Farallon Islands. After six decades underwater, the USS Independence looked remarkable and was mostly intact. She'd sunk 2,600 feet to the bottom of the ocean and landed in a perfectly upright position, looking ready to sail out again. Indeed, after a complete sonar map was created, researchers spotted what might even be an aircraft in one of the hangar bays.

7. The Doomed Submarine

During World War II, in 1942, the German submarine U-576 locked onto an irresistible target - a convoy of merchant ships. The civilian vessels were not alone. Acting as bodyguards, a number of Allied warships escorted the fleet. The German Captain decided to attack, a bold decision under the best of circumstances but in his case the move was suicidal. The submarine had a damaged ballast tank that affected the boat's ability to rise and dive. After four of its torpedoes hit several ships and sunk one, the sub did something unexpected. Perhaps because of the ballast handicap, it suddenly surfaced between the Allies. After the damage they suffered, Navy planes and ship gunners jumped on the chance and opened fire, scuttling the vulnerable submarine within minutes. NOAA wanted to locate the doomed German crew and find out what exactly sealed their fate. A recent seven-year search rewarded the scientists when they found the remarkably preserved U-576 in North Carolina waters. The outer hull showed damage resembling a depth charge wound. If this caused even partial flooding, the ballast-challenged submarine would have been grounded because of the extra weight, incapable of rising again.

Above is a more common type of cookie cutter, showing the small size of this group of sharks.

Above is a more common type of cookie cutter, showing the small size of this group of sharks.

8. Pocket Shark

A rare find was ironically made in NOAA's own back yard. During a non-related study, ocean water was collected and stored in a laboratory in Pascagoula. Years passed before scientists launched a more thorough investigation into the holding tank. They were shocked to find a so-called pocket shark inside (long dead). The tiny predator became the second specimen ever to be recorded and the two were found worlds apart. The first was discovered decades ago near Peru while the tank surprise was lifted 190 miles offshore Louisiana. While the animal is small enough to fit in a pocket, the cute name really comes from pocket-type holes above the pectoral fins. Because of their scarcity, little is known about these sharks. Researchers hope to one day understand their unusual pockets and abdominal glands, why they are so scarce and yet so apparently widely spread. Genetic testing did reveal that the shark belongs to the cookie-cutter family, diminutive carnivores that punch round pieces out of living creatures.

9. Lost Whaling Fleet

In 1871, pack ice trapped 33 whaling ships in Alaska. Thankfully, everyone was rescued but the event marked the end of whale hunting in the United States. The fleet's artifacts washed ashore over the years, but NOAA archaeologists wanted to find the source of this bounty, something nobody has ever managed to do before. They scanned the Alaskan coastline along the Chukchi Sea and came across a submerged ship graveyard littered with remnants of the crushed fleet. Anchors, tools, ballast and equipment used to turn whale blubber into highly prized oil were scattered among the remaining crushed hulls of two ships. This fits with eyewitness reports describing how the ice sheared off the upper parts of the vessels while the hulls with their anchors and ballast stayed behind against a submerged sand bank.

10. Karasu

When three carcasses washed up on a Japanese beach in 2013, they at first appeared to be a species called Baird's beaked whale. But the dolphin-faced mammals were darker and smaller. To find out why there was a difference, Japanese biologists ran DNA tests. Unfortunately, the genetic material of the three odd individuals weren't enough to confirm a new species. NOAA's interest was piqued.

Encouraged by sightings of what the locals called "Karasu" (meaning crow, because of its diminutive size and color), researchers decided to have a look at Baird's beaked whales wherever they could find them - on land. They scoured museums, beach strandings, and displays. In this manner, 178 individuals were collected and then the DNA testing began in earnest. Five turned out to be non-Baird's. Together with the Japanese ones, the eight whales provided enough genetic variation for NOAA to prove that the animals were an entirely new beaked species. Intriguingly, "Karasu" continues to elude observation in the wild.













© 2017 Jana Louise Smit

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