‘We don’t know what it is’: Scientists baffled by golden orb found in Gulf of Alaska

an orb
A “golden orb” found on the seafloor during the Okeanos Explorer’s Gulf of Alaska expedition. (From NOAA)

The Okeanos Explorer, an exploratory vessel operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, discovered an unidentifiable, golden orb deep in the Gulf of Alaska late last month. The orb ended up making national headlines for stumping the ship’s scientists. 

The attention came as a surprise, said expedition coordinator Sam Candio.

“I’m not even sure that that was the most interesting thing on that dive,” he said. “We, aboard, pretty much forgot about it. And then once it started getting all the media attention, it was just like, ‘Oh, that’s what everybody’s focused on.’”

Researchers still haven’t been able to identify the golden orb. 

“We don’t know what it is and I haven’t gotten any compelling ideas from people ashore. But a lot of theories right now are kind of the same ones that we had when we first came across it,” he said. “It could be some sort of sponge, maybe a coral, I’m kind of on the egg-case train.” 

It was found about 3,300 meters — or about two miles — under the ocean’s surface during the ship’s work along Alaska’s coastline. 

Underwater, the orb was a bit more circular and had kind of a golden shine, but when their drone brought a sample to the surface, it was a matte brown and had a flaky texture with a hard center.

a sample
Scientists used an aquatic drone to bring the orb to the surface for testing. (From NOAA)

Scientists aboard the ship took several photos and ran tests. Candio said the crew will have to send the orb along with a myriad of other potential new species to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., for further analysis. 

“We got a lot of things that are new to science, which is really exciting,” he said. “We’re processing them, making sure that we get them all packed away safely.” 

He said while the orb intrigued the crew, they were more fascinated on this particular dive by seeing octopi tending to eggs — that’s previously been a rare sight. In their time in Alaska, the scientists found several octopi tending to eggs with 10 mothers off the coast of Kodiak Island.

The Okeanos Explorer is about to complete its work in Alaska. The ship’s last stop is in Seward, and then the crew will head to San Francisco for the winter. Candio said he was glad to visit so many places around the state. 

“Just seeing how incredible all the life and the landscapes and the geology and how diverse and beautiful it was with crazy coral forests and chemosynthetic communities, and pretty much everything you could hope to see,” he said. “It’s amazing to see that both on land and at sea.” 

The boat is scheduled to begin mapping waters around Hawaii next year.

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