Deep under the Gulf of Mexico, researchers have discovered one of the strangest – and most deadly – places on Earth. In effect, it’s an enormous trap, and anything that enters it is almost guaranteed to perish. This is a weird, almost alien place, yet it’s just a boat ride away from the shores of America.
Imagine a river running under the ocean and ending in a deep pool that’s surrounded by the corpses of giant crabs which have wandered to their untimely deaths. Although it sounds like something from a science-fiction film, it’s very real. What’s more, it offers a fascinating glimpse into the hostility of life beneath the waves.
The lake was first discovered in 2014 by an unmanned submarine, and scientists have recently returned to the bizarre location to find out more about it. Moreover, the research they’re conducting won’t just help us understand more about our own planet. There’s also a chance that it could be used to find out more about alien worlds.
The researchers who discovered this bizarre pool have dubbed it “the Jacuzzi of death” – and with good reason. However, it’s not just death that the researchers are interested in. There’s life in this eerie underwater graveyard as well. Life that’s evolved in one of the most dangerous places on the planet.
Descending to the pool from the surface of the Gulf of Mexico takes around an hour – and it’s neither a trip nor a destination for the faint of heart. The extraordinary phenomenon was first found by an associate professor of biology at Temple University, Erik Cordes, and his colleagues. And the team’s first glimpse of the deep-sea lake came thanks to an unmanned sub known as Hercules.
Would the son of Zeus himself have braved such a place? Well, while most things that stumble upon the pool end up dead, it isn’t entirely without its perks. For example, compared to the surrounding sea water, the pool is positively balmy. It’s around 65 °F – almost double the temperature of the ocean above it. Yet it’s partly that warmth which makes the pool such an effective killer.
Yes, although it isn’t the heat that kills any unsuspecting creature that falls into the pool, the warmth of the water is what lures them in in the first place. It’s something else, though, that takes their lives. Thanks to the movement of the tectonic plates in the area, nature has created an undersea lake with a property so deadly to most creatures that once they stumble inside, they’re done for.
There’s one simple, and perhaps seemingly innocuous, factor that makes the lake such a deadly location: it’s salt. The saline levels in the lake are in fact four to five times higher than those of the water that surrounds it. This in turn creates a cocktail of different chemicals that make the pool so dangerous to most lifeforms. What’s more, it’s been a very long time in the making.
Although it’s very old, however, the pool is just 12 feet deep and some 100 feet in circumference. That said, it’s also more than 3,000 feet under the surface of the ocean. And while it isn’t the only pool of its kind in the world, it’s still an incredibly rare discovery – and few if any of those other pools have such vibrant ecosystems around them.
However, the pool isn’t just strange; it’s beautiful as well. Indeed, scientists have described it as being like something from another world. Vibrant red and white mineral deposits stand out against the muddy brown of the rest of the ocean floor. It’s certainly a strange sight, and things only become more extraordinary as you go deeper into the undersea lake and its history.
Conditions millions of years ago began the course of events that would result in the creation of the underwater salt lake. Indeed, during the Jurassic age a shallow sea sat where the Gulf of Mexico now lies. Over time, this sea became separated from the rest of the ocean and eventually evaporated, and as a result, huge deposits of salt were created.
Gradually, these salt deposits became compressed under layers of other sediments, and in some places the salt layers were miles thick. Then when the former sea was flooded again, fissures in the rocks caused by the pressure from the water above the salt allowed the mineral to seep back out. Subsequently, it formed the briny mixture that’s so dangerous to marine life in the present day.
Salt isn’t the only substance present in the pool’s waters, though. In fact, a mix of deadly toxins also seeps out of the cracks in the rock and into the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists have recorded high levels of both methane and hydrogen sulfide in the crater-like pool. Nonetheless, the salt plays an important part in perhaps the grisliest aspect of the pool’s existence.
Around the pool are the corpses of crabs and other creatures that have wandered a bit too close to the dangerous brew of chemicals contained within. What’s more, because of the high salinity of the water, such creatures have effectively been pickled. This in turn leads to another gruesome fact about the underwater lake.
You see, there’s no way of knowing how long the dead creatures have been lying by the pool for. Indeed, there’s a chance that they could have been there for decades. Don’t let that give you the wrong idea, though. For while most things can’t survive near the pool, it’s actually teeming with all kinds of strange lifeforms.
Around the edge of the pool there are colonies of mussels, for one. The secret to their survival? Well, the bacteria found in the mussels’ mouths convert the gases released by the pool into energy that nourishes the shellfish, allowing them to thrive in this hostile environment. There are also tubeworms, which sustain themselves by a similar method.
And there are shrimp surviving around the pool as well, for they too have specially adapted to life in one of the harshest places on the planet. These adaptations are, furthermore, of particular interest to the scientific community. That’s because researchers think that studying life in this environment is a good way to try to understand what organisms might be like elsewhere in the universe.
Speaking to publisher Seeker, Cordes explained why life at the bottom of the ocean could be so important to research into potential lifeforms on other planets. “There’s a lot of people looking at these extreme habitats on Earth as models for what we might discover when we go to other planets,” he said.
And because of the conditions that exist at the bottom of our oceans, there’s scope for using them to learn about similarly hostile places that aren’t even on this planet. “The technology development in the deep sea is definitely going to be applied to the worlds beyond our own,” Cordes added.
The pool under the waves of the Gulf of Mexico is one of the first places where extremophiles – animals that have adapted to the harshest conditions on Earth – have been discovered in such a salty environment. Moreover, it demonstrates how much we still have to learn about what’s going on under our seas.