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Top 9 Remarkable 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.

The NOAA research vessel Shenehon

The NOAA research vessel Shenehon


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 happen by accident. Others are done with great intent and diligence, such as finding lost fleets and even proving the existence of a creature that scientists are yet to see in the wild.

1. The Deepest Noise

When NOAA scientists became curious about which sounds exist at the deepest point in the ocean, they lowered a hydrophone into the Challenger Deep canyon. The microphone dropped seven miles below the surface before it was left dangling in the dark for weeks.

When scientists retrieved the flash drive, they 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. One might think that any sound reaching this depth will be muffled. But the whales were so distinct that their species could be identified and the typhoon left a royal ruckus on the recording.

2. The Purple Thing

In 2016, an 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. It was soft and purple and was unlike anything the experienced crew had ever seen.

If this was even an animal, researchers believe that it might be a mollusk-type creature. However, nothing in the Pacific (where it was found) resembles the lavender wonder. If this is a slug, it might be a new species of something called a pleurobranch. These creatures are amorphous, which means they lack a specific form but none of the known species 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.

A sonar image of the USS Conestoga, capturing the end of a 95-year long mystery.

A sonar image of the USS Conestoga, capturing the end of a 95-year long mystery.

3. The Tugboat Mystery

Almost a century ago, a tugboat vanished and became one of the ten most mystifying ship mysteries on record. The U.S. Navy boat, the USS Conestoga left California in 1921, destination - American Samoa. The 56 souls on board never arrived, and the reaction was epic.

It triggered the biggest search of 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. They were not looking for shipwrecks. Instead, the scientists were mapping the ocean floor when a feature near San Francisco's Farallon Islands looked unnatural. Working alongside the Navy, they finally identified the missing tugboat from its size, propeller design, porthole placements, and 50-caliber deck gun.

4. The Monster Sponge

In 2016, another surprise discovery awaited researchers in Hawaiian waters. Their remote vehicles were buzzing the depths at five 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.

Identified as the first of its kind, the sponge is roughly the size of a minibus. While its exact age will be difficult to determine, the sponge is probably ancient (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.

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An archive photo of the USS Independence

An archive photo of the USS Independence

5. The Twice A-Bombed Ship

The USS Independence served as an aircraft carrier during World War II. She fought the good fight in the Pacific until the conflict came to an end. Afterward, 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.

In 2015, NOAA and Boeing launched a joint effort and located the battleship near the Farallon Islands. After six decades of being submerged, the vessel looked remarkably 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.

6. The Doomed Submarine

During World War II, in 1942, the German submarine U-576 locked onto an irresistible target—a convoy of merchant ships. But the civilian vessels had bodyguards. A number of Allied warships escorted the fleet.

The German Captain decided to attack and four of torpedoes hit the ships, sinking one of them. The submarine had a damaged ballast tank, and this could have led to an unfortunate turn for the Germans. The sub unexpectedly bobbed to the surface and the Allies quickly scuttled the enemy boat.

NOAA wanted to locate the doomed German crew and understand what exactly had sealed their fate. In 2016, after seven years of searching, scientists found the remarkably preserved U-576 in North Carolina waters. The outer hull had damage that resembled that of a depth charge. If this caused even partial flooding, the ballast-challenged submarine would have sunk without the ability to rise again.

A pocket shark

A pocket shark

7. The Rare Pocket Shark

A rare find was ironically made in NOAA's own backyard. 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).

At the time, the tiny predator was one of only two known specimens—and they were found worlds apart. The first was discovered decades ago near Peru while the tank surprise was lifted 190 miles offshore Louisiana.

The animal is small enough to fit in a pocket, but the cute name hails from pocket-type holes above the pectoral fins.

8. Lost Whaling Fleet

In 1871, pack ice trapped 33 whaling ships in Alaska. Everyone was rescued, but the fleet was left behind. Over the years, artifacts washed ashore. NOAA archaeologists wanted to find the source of this bounty, something nobody had ever managed to do before.

In 2016, 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 were scattered across the 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.

9. Karasu

When three carcasses washed ashore on a Japanese beach in 2013, they appeared to be a species called Baird's beaked whale. But the dolphin-faced mammals were darker and smaller.

To understand the difference, biologists ran DNA tests. Unfortunately, the genetic material of the three odd individuals wasn't enough to confirm a new species, but 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 and other displays and investigated freshly stranded whales. They found 178 individuals. DNA tests showed that five were non-Bairds. Instead, they were an entirely new species of beaked whale that continues to elude scientific observation in the wild.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Jana Louise Smit

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