It’s easy to think of science as clear, clean and linear—the progressive accumulation of information driving a steady increase in our understanding of the world. But, in truth, it’s messy. There are fits and starts. Bafflement. Wrong turns. Dead ends. Head-scratching questions that defy answers.
There are also a lot of happy accidents, often made by people not even in science—as the workers on an oil and gas rig off the coast of Angola discovered in August of 2015.
They were collecting routine video footage of an oil well 4,000 feet below the surface with a remotely operated underwater vehicle, or ROV. In amazement, they watched as a large, bulbous, gelatinous, transparent creature with trailing tendrils filled the camera’s view. They had no idea what they had seen.
But, there’s a fascinating “strange bedfellows” kind of collaboration between offshore oil and gas companies and the scientific community. The shared goal? To gather deep-sea data. It's called the SERPENT Project meaning it’s the Scientific and Environmental ROV Partnership Using Existing Industrial Technology. SERPENT, for short.
Very little is known about the deep sea. It's remote and expensive to explore. To work around these limitations to basic scientific research, the SERPENT Project enlists offshore oil and gas company ROV pilots to become part-time marine biologists.
The project trains rig workers how to spot the strange animals that inhabit the ocean depths. Since they are already out working in the abyss, using state-of-the-art technology, they are perfect eyes and ears for science.
The oil workers in Angola sent their creature-feature footage to SERPENT, where scientists identified the large, looming, noodle-armed animal as Bathyphysa conifera—a species of siphonophore, which is a colonial animal related to corals, anemones and jellies. The director of the SERPENT Project, described as “a great example of how collaboration with industry can allow us to see much more of the deep sea and its strange and wonderful marine life.”
It was so strange and wonderful that the global news media picked it up and the video went viral. Bathyphysa conifera had its 15 minutes of fame. The animal was nicknamed "The Flying Spaghetti Monster" after a pop-culture Internet meme. To be fair, it did resemble a large floating tangle of pasta.
The Flying Spaghetti Monster's closest relative is the more familiar Portuguese man o' war. Like it, Bathyphysa is a predator; it stuns its prey with stinging cells. Like all siphonophores, Bathyphysa is not just a single animal, but a colony of individual organisms called zooids. They work together as a group. Strange? Of course.
On reflection, why shouldn't the Flying Spaghetti Monster be a collective? Bees do it. Colonial corals do it. To a certain extent we do it, our "selves" being made up of millions of individual cells. It is a very successful evolutionary adaptation.
Specimens of Bathyphysa have been found to be over 130 feet long. Long, thin and transparent, siphonophores are some of the longest animals in the world, and among the most delicate. They rarely make it intact to the surface for observation.
And that’s why SERPENT’s rig-workers-turned-marine-biologists are so important to the study of deep-sea creatures in the wild.
To learn more about the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the deep-sea data currently being gathered by the SERPENT Project, visit aqua.org/ablueview.