DAVID GREENE, HOST:
What better time than Christmas to hear about a very cold part of the Earth where mysterious things take place - not the North Pole - the Mariana Trench. It cuts a 1,500-mile swath at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean near the island of Guam. And an international team of scientists has just spent over a month sending probes down to the deepest place on the planet. The scientists were stunned by the amount of life they found there, including the deepest known fish. NPR's Christopher Joyce has more.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Seven miles below the ocean's surface, the trench lies in perpetual darkness and freezing cold. To explore it, scientists aboard the research vessel, Falko, dropped landers over the side. Each one is about the size of a big refrigerator and bristles with instruments and cameras. The landers use thick, glass spheres full of air to control their up-and-down movement. The spheres have to withstand pressures that would crush a human like a tin can.
JEFF DRAZEN: If they crack, they implode in a microsecond.
JOYCE: Biologist Jeff Drazen of the University of Hawaii was a senior scientist on team.
DRAZEN: And that sets off a shock wave like a stick of dynamite going off.
JOYCE: And that's just what happened to one lander. The implosion was recorded by its microphone, and in those cold depths, the sound kept echoing along the trench. The lander survived, as did all but one of the others. Once on the bottom, they waited and watched, and they got some big surprises.
DRAZEN: We saw the deepest living fish ever recorded - definitely something new. We took one look at the thing, and we're amazed - the big, wide wing-like fins - this eel-like tail and this scalloped face. It was very unique.
JOYCE: It appeared to be a new species of snailfish, living five miles below the surface. The landers also carried baited traps that actually caught another new species of fish and brought several of them back to the ship. Although, they didn't survive the decompression. The scientists also wanted to know what lives in the bottom sediment. It's made of decomposed ocean life that constantly drifts down from above like snow. The landers dug into the sediment and measured the respiration rate of microbes in it. Drazen says the results were astonishing.
DRAZEN: The rates were really high. It was incredible. It was really cooking.
JOYCE: : All in all, the trench turned out to be a biological hotspot. Paul Yancey is a team biologist from Whitman College.
PAUL YANCEY: It's looking like there's a lot more life down there than we thought. You know, this is so far from sunlight, and people thought there wouldn't be a lot of life down there, but there is.
JOYCE: Yancey says one reason appears to be the fact that the trench is truly the bottom of the planet - things end up there the way they do with the bottom of a purse.
YANCEY: It's looking like these trenches might act like funnels to collect stuff from all over the oceans that's sinking down.
JOYCE: Stuff that sustains animals if they can adapt to this hostile environment. Yancey says that's what biologist live for - the chance to find crazy, new stuff.
YANCEY: Well, I think the big picture is we - there's so much about our planet we don't know yet. I mean, literally, we have better maps of the moon and even Mars than we do of most of the deep-sea.
JOYCE: Scientists will be back to the trench. The Schmidt Ocean Institute, which operates the team's research vessel, is building a remotely operated vehicle that will be able to travel along the bottom. Then, the scientists won't have to wait for deep-sea dwellers to come to them. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
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