No human alive was around during the famous voyage of the Mayflower in 1620. But scientists have discovered a Greenland shark that might have been. The shark was almost 400 years old, according to findings published on August 12 in the journal Science. The margin for error on this is huge, 120 years either way. Yet the youngest possible age makes the shark older than the United States, and easily beats a 211-year-old bowhead whale as the longest living vertebrate ever discovered.
The discovery of a centuries-old Greenland shark is just the latest amazing oceanic discovery.
The deep ocean makes up 80 percent of Earth’s living space. Dry land makes up 0.5 percent. Venus, Mars and the moon have all been mapped in far better detail than the bottom of the sea. More people have traveled into space than entered these depths. No wonder we’re constantly discovering new wonders. And just like man’s forays into space, a journey into the deep ocean can teach and inspire.
As one descends into the depths, light starts to disappear. At a depth of about 600 feet, it’s too dark for plants to survive. In this twilight, surface-less world, transparent creatures become one of the more common life-forms.
As you dive deeper, things get even stranger. At 3,000 feet down, no sunlight can reach. But the sea is far from dark. It is full of creatures that make their own living light.
Edith Widder described her first deep-sea dive—one of the first-ever deep dives—in 1984 to Abigail Tucker for the Smithsonian Magazine. “She was hoping for a flash here, a flash there. But what she saw in the darkness rivaled Van Gogh’s Starry Night—plumes and blossoms and flourishes of brilliance,” wrote Tucker. “There were explosions of light all around, and sparks and swirls and great chains of what looked like Japanese lanterns,” Widder told Tucker. “I was enveloped. Everything was glowing. … It was just a variety of things making light, different shapes, different kinetics, mostly blue, and just so much of it. That’s what astonished me.”
In the dark depths, angler and dragon fish use light to lure prey to their gaping mouths. Some dragon fish beam light— their own personal headlamps—that the eyes of other deep-sea fish cannot detect.
Here, crustaceans cry for help or warn their fellows by flashing once attacked. There are shrimp that shoot a sticky glowing liquid onto their attackers, painting a bright target on their assailants, marking them out for even bigger fish to attack. Some jellyfish put on a fireworks display of multicolored light when touched.
Finally, at the bottom of the open ocean are the abyssal plains, a vast, almost flat expanse around 10,000 to 20,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. These plains cover between a third and half of Earth’s surface. Yet by the year 2000, we had explored only around four square miles of them. bbc’s The Blue Planet book said “there should be at least a million undescribed animals” on these plains.
Worms, sea cucumbers and starfish are some of the more common creatures. Yet even in these depths, fish live. Many species of rattail fish have a light along with lenses and mirrors to focus the beam. No one knows why. The tripod fish stands on the bottom of the sea floor. The Greenland shark is one of the largest fish thought to survive at this depth.
There is beauty here too. “The landscape down there is as dramatic as anything in a national park,” said Cindy van Dover, director of Duke University’s Marine Laboratory.
Below even this are the great ocean trenches. The Mariana Trench is more than 35,000 feet deep, much further below the sea than Mt. Everest stands above it. These trenches are the final frontier of exploration on Earth.
All this life, all this wonder, has been here all along, long before men could find it. For millennia, this gigantic, silent, starry night has existed below the waves.
The comparatively tiny part of this world we have seen is an inspiration and a wonder—one with a much larger meaning than simple intrigue or fascination.
“Through everything God made,” the Apostle Paul wrote, “they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature” (Romans 1:20; New Living Translation).
Through modern technology, we can see what Paul never dreamed of. And whether in a puddle of water or a geothermal vent in a mid-ocean ridge, everywhere we look, we find beauty and perfection. Every scrap of energy, every particle of resources, is used in some way.
Science has revealed sharks that live for centuries, jellyfish that stage living fireworks displays. The genius and power of these creatures’ great Creator are more visible than ever before.
David contemplated the world and worlds beyond in Psalm 19, writing, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” So do the depths.
Isaiah wrote in Isaiah 51:16 that God intends to “plant the heavens,” filling the universe with life. New discoveries from the depths show the variety and genius of life that is possible. Today, God has confined physical life to Earth. Yet He has filled even its deepest, darkest cracks with stunning creatures. We “see through a glass, darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). But when the time comes to populate the universe, just how full of inventive, resilient, captivating life will it be?