25 Things You Didn't Know About the World's Oceans

iStock
iStock

If you don’t know much about the deep blue sea—like why it's not actually blue, for example—check out 25 facts we’ve culled about the world’s largest and most fascinating real estate.

1. THE SUN GIVES IT THAT BLUE TINT.

A look at calm, blue ocean waters
iStock

One of the most indelible features of the oceans is the deep blue waters that are continually churning, rolling, and coming in waves. The color is the result of the sun’s red and orange wavelengths being absorbed by the surface and its blue wavelengths penetrating deeper, giving way to a blue tint. And because those wavelengths can travel further down, the ocean will tend to appear more blue the lower you go. Why isn't water in a glass blue when you're sitting outdoors? There aren't enough molecules to absorb the light.

2. THEY'RE KEEPING THE INTERNET ONLINE.

If you could catch sight of the miles of cable criss-crossing the world’s oceans, it would look like a giant, submerged web. Communications companies maintain international connections by feeding cables down to (hopefully) flat surfaces on the ocean floor. Some require shark-proof layers to prevent predators from biting into your Netflix stream (although the danger of sharks has been vastly overhyped—human activity is a far bigger threat).

3. THE DEEPEST PART IS REALLY, REALLY DEEP.

The Mariana Trench is considered to be the deepest part of the world’s oceans. Inside of the Trench is a valley known as Challenger Deep that extends roughly seven miles (36,070 feet) below the surface. For comparison, the entirety of Mount Everest—at 29,029 feet—could easily be accommodated there. Manned explorations haven’t gone any further than 35,797 feet below the surface, a record set by two oceanographers in 1960. In 2012, filmmaker James Cameron explored roughly the same depths in a solo mission. It’s considered the deepest point on Earth.

4. SOUNDS CAN TRAVEL TO THE DEEPEST EXPLORED AREAS.

Researchers once lowered an underwater microphone called a hydrophone to almost the bottom of the Mariana Trench to see what sounds—if any—it might pick up. After feeling relieved the immense pressure at those depths—about 8 tons per square inch—didn’t implode the equipment, they discovered that sound from earthquakes, passing baleen whales, and other ambient noise was audible.

5. LAKES AND RIVERS LIE BENEATH THE SURFACE.

Some surfaces in the ocean feature sights that don’t seem to make any logical sense—rivers and lakes, some of them miles long, can stretch across the ground even though they’re submerged. How can a body of water exist in a body of water? Water from under the sea floor seeps up and dissolves salt layers, forming depressions. Because the water in the depression is more dense than the water all around it, it settles into the depression and forms a distinct pool.

6. THERE ARE 20 MILLION TONS OF UNTOUCHABLE GOLD IN THE OCEANS.

If you’re hoping to find a fortune in gold prospecting, don’t expect the ocean to cooperate. You may be able to plunder a shipwreck, but you won’t be able to collect much of the 20 million tons of gold estimated to exist in the water. That’s because it’s so diluted that it’s measured in parts per trillion. One liter of seawater might net you a 13-billionth of a gram.

7. WE KNOW MORE THAN YOU MIGHT EXPECT.

A dolphin swims in the ocean
iStock

You might see mentions that we’ve "mapped" more of Mars than we have the Earth’s oceans, but that’s not quite true. Oceanographers have been able to visualize almost 100 percent of the ocean floors, albeit in a resolution that makes it difficult to spot a lot of detail. In that sense, images of Mars and other planets have been able to offer more information because they’re not covered in water that can block radar. Although we haven't explored the vast majority of the oceans first-hand, technology has enabled us to have a rough idea of their layouts.

8. THE BIGGEST WATERFALL ON EARTH IS IN THE ATLANTIC.

Putting Niagara Falls to shame is the Denmark Strait, a waterfall below the Atlantic Ocean that, in terms of water volume, is the equivalent of 2000 of the world’s most notable waterfalls, with cascading liquid pouring 11,500 feet down. The Strait’s cold water on the eastern side is more dense than the warm fluid coming from the west. When the two waters mix, the colder supply sinks, creating a waterfall.

9. WE DON'T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT MOST OF THE MARINE LIFE.

An octopus is photographed by an ocean photographer
iStock

Size and water pressure conspire to limit our exploration of the oceans, so much so that it’s estimated we’ve identified only one-third of the potential marine life lurking beneath the surface. It’s possible most of those are smaller organisms, but it’s likely that some whales and other mammal species have yet to be discovered. We’re making progress, though: An average of 2000 new species are described each year.

10. MAGELLAN NAMED THE PACIFIC OCEAN.

When Ferdinand Magellan crossed the Atlantic beginning in 1519, he eventually found his way to another body of water—what he dubbed the Pacific, or peaceful, ocean due to the calm surface. He didn’t know it at the time, but the Pacific would eventually be recognized as the largest ocean on the planet at 59 million square miles.

11. THE MOST REMOTE PLACE ON EARTH IS IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC.

Point Nomo is illustrated
Courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Known as Point Nemo, the area is roughly 1000 equidistant miles away from the coasts of three neighboring islands and so remote that astronauts are often closer to any theoretical occupants than anyone on dry land.

12. MOST VOLCANIC ERUPTIONS ARE UNDERWATER.

Up to 80 percent of volcanic eruptions go unnoticed by land-dwellers. That’s because they’re erupting underwater. An estimated one million volcanoes—some extinct and some very active—spew molten hot lava. Despite the heat, creatures can still be found near their superheated vents. Researchers believe these areas harbor several undiscovered species that are invulnerable to the harsh conditions, including water temperatures up to 750 degrees Fahrenheit.

13. THERE MAY BE BILLIONS IN SUNKEN TREASURE DOWN IN THE DEEP.

A sunken ship sits on the ocean floor
iStock

It’s impossible to offer an accurate estimate of how many shipwrecks and accompanying treasures are lurking in the oceans, but a few people have made an honest effort of it. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) thinks a million sunken ships lurk in the dark; others peg the total value of the unrecovered treasures at $60 billion. So why don’t we hear more stories of watery grave-robbing? Because governments or private parties are likely to make a legal claim to those funds, making an expensive expedition for treasure a gamble at best.

14. THEY KEEP US BREATHING.

Forget all the beauty and wonder of the world’s oceans: At the bare minimum, they’re responsible for supplying us with oxygen. Oceans produce 70 percent of the oxygen supply in the atmosphere thanks to marine plants releasing it as a byproduct of photosynthesis. One phytoplankton, Prochlorococcus, is estimated to be solely responsible for one in every five breaths a human will take.

15. "DEAD ZONES" CAN BE BARREN OF ANY LIFE.

Dark ocean waters can be devoid of life
iStock

One reason pollution is such an issue for oceans: It can rob them of the oxygen needed to support life. When run-off from waste disposal gets into the water, it can feed an overabundance of algae, which then dies, sinks, and as it decomposes, consumes the available oxygen in the water. That creates hypoxic areas, or hot spots with a lack of oxygen. If fish and other marine life don’t find a new space to dwell in, they’re toast.

16. THE FISH ARE EATING A LOT OF PLASTIC.

With over seven million tons of plastic winding up in the ocean each year, it’s inevitable that a lot of it winds up as part of an unwelcome addition to a fish’s diet. For fish in the northern Pacific, researchers at the University of California, San Diego once estimated they swallow between 12,000 and 24,000 tons every year.

17. KEEPING TROPICAL PET FISH MIGHT BE HARMING THE OCEANS.

Colorful tropical fish swim in the water
iStock

Those aquariums in pet stores and dental offices might remind you of marine life, but they might also be having a negative impact. When tropical fish are caught, fishermen use sodium cyanide to make them float out of the reef for easy scooping. While the hope is that it just stuns them, the residue of the chemical can bleach coral reefs and kill scores of other fish.

18. TSUNAMI WAVES CAN REACH 100 FEET...

When waves reach shallow water near land, energy that would normally be dispersed goes up, elongating the wave. A 1958 earthquake and landslide in Alaska generated a tsunami 100 feet high and destroyed all vegetation up to 1720 feet, the largest in recorded history.

19. ...BUT THE BIGGEST WAVES ARE UNDER THE SURFACE.

Called internal waves, these water walls have been found three miles below the surface. The waves are part of water layers with different densities and can reach heights of 800 feet before collapsing. Scientists believe these massive forces can help move heat and nutrients to other areas.

20. WE'RE TRYING TO MAKE THE OCEAN DRINKABLE.

As most everyone knows, drinking salt water is perilous at best and deadly at worst. In a process called desalination, that salt is removed, leaving fresh water. But building facilities and the energy required to process water this way has traditionally been more expensive than sourcing water from potable sources.

21. THE BRISTLEMOUTH IS THE MOST ABUNDANT VERTEBRATE IN THE WORLD.

A bristlemouth snacks on a shrimp
Courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Not familiar? If you saw one, you’d know. The bristlemouth is a fish a little smaller than your average human finger that has a mouth full of fangs and can glow in the dark. It’s also the most common vertebrate in the world. For comparison? Chickens could number as many as 24 billion on land, while bristlemouths are said to add up to the hundreds of trillions.

22. GIANT KELP GROWS VERY QUICKLY.

Giant kelp, or Macrocystis Pyrifera, is a type of seaweed that experiences an astonishing growth spurt. To reach its usual height of 100 feet, the species can grow up to two feet in a single day.

23. RUBBER DUCKS HAVE HELPED OUR UNDERSTANDING OF THE OCEANS.

A rubber duck floats in the water
iStock

In 1992, a shipment of bath toys was headed from China to the U.S. when the cargo ship dropped a container. More than 28,000 rubber ducks—or duckies, depending on your preference—and other play-animals were dumped into the North Pacific Ocean. Oceanographers tracked where the ducks wound up in order to better understand the water currents, with some landing ashore in Europe and Hawaii. The duck sightings didn’t ease up until the mid-2000s.

24. ANTARCTIC FISH HAVE NATURAL ANTIFREEZE.

Curious how aquatic life can survive the temperatures at the poles? Antifreeze proteins in the fish prevent ice crystals from growing, preventing their blood from being overcome by the chill and allowing it to continue flowing.

25. SEASHELLS DON'T ACTUALLY SOUND LIKE THE OCEAN.

A child holds a seashell up to her ear
iStock

Seashells have long been perceived as the iPods of the sea, tiny little devices that can mimic the static, hissing noise of the water. What they’re actually doing is acting as a resonator, or a cavity that allows sound to vibrate. By holding up the shell to your ear, you’re hearing the ambient noise around you amplified. All that whooshing air typically sounds a lot like the movement of cascading waves. If you can't make it to beach, though, it might be the next best thing.

Some People Can Control When They Get Goosebumps—and Scientists Are Stumped

This woman might be controlling her goosebumps with her mind.
This woman might be controlling her goosebumps with her mind.
MyetEck/iStock via Getty Images

Travis Carrasco, 29, is a mechanical engineer in Las Vegas, Nevada. For all intents and purposes, he’s a normal individual. He loves coloring with colored pencils; likes leadership books and the color green.

But in youth, his relatives took notice of Carrasco’s peculiar tendency to sway his head back and forth. He told them he was giving himself goosebumps. They didn’t believe him.

They were wrong.

According to the low end of informal estimates, about one in every 1500 people have something called Voluntarily Generated Piloerection (VGP)—the ability to consciously give themselves goosebumps. The weird thing is, VGP shouldn’t exist. The phenomenon both perplexes and intrigues neurophysiologists by defying conventional understanding of how the unconscious nervous system operates.

A mammal’s hair follicle clings to the skin via a tiny muscle. When this muscle contracts, the hair will stand, the skin around it will undergo bump-shaped distortion, and voilagoosebumps.

For the 1499 people in this statistical metaphor, goosebumps are completely involuntary. The tiny muscle, called the arrector pili, is made of smooth muscle fibers. And like other smooth muscles of the body—those that handle digestion, blood flow, respiration, and so on—they are unconsciously regulated. The nerves attached to them lie in the autonomic nervous system, the part of the nervous system dedicated to managing bodily functions you aren’t supposed to control consciously, like heart rate or pupil dilation.

Voluntary Generated Piloerection "Shouldn't Be Possible"

When James Heathers, a physiologist at Northeastern University, came across an engineering paper referencing the only three single-individual case studies of VGP in medical history, he couldn’t believe it. 

“That was catnip for me,” Heathers tells Mental Floss, his voice cracking with excitement. “[VGP] shouldn’t be possible. That’s not how the autonomic nervous system works; what it does. This reason that it’s called autonomic—autonomos—it means ‘without thought.’”

Heathers, who normally spends his time in data science and patient-centered electronic health development, got to work on goosebumps as a scientific side-hustle. In 2018, he authored a paper in the journal PeerJ making the first published attempt at defining the prevalence and properties of VGP.

He wanted to know exactly how it works. What do people think about when they give themselves goosebumps? In what situations are they deployed? What personality traits are common in people with VGP?

Heathers sifted through obscure internet forums and sent out surveys, and ended up evaluating 32 participants with VGP using standardized personality tests. He found that those with VGP who responded to his survey had unusually ‘open’ personalities compared to the average person.

“They seem to be more creative; they imagine more,” Heathers says. “They pay more attention to themselves. They track their emotions more closely. They have a preference for new stuff … That’s either an artifact of people who are more open being more likely to answer a survey on the internet for fun, because they want to know about themselves; or it’s a component of the experience itself.”

A "Sixth Sense"

You may be thinking, Wait, I’m open-minded, and I can give myself goosebumps just by thinking of nails scratching a chalkboard. But Heathers is clear; that’s not VGP. 

“VGP has no mental or cognitive component,” Heathers says. “The vast majority of people who do it, in the way that we’ve defined it, simply have a really straightforward pathway. A lot of the time, they focus on a point, behind their ear or on their neck or at the back of the head. They don’t have to think of anything.”

In other words, those with VGP need only think about getting goosebumps—not about the situations that would, under normal circumstances, give them goosebumps.

“Basically, it starts at the base of my neck, the bottom of my head and the backside,” Carrasco, the engineer with VGP, tells Mental Floss. “When I trigger it, it feels like a bunch of sparks travel throughout my entire body, and I can do it repetitively, over and over and over and over and over. However, the strongest sensation is only the first couple times.”

While the induced goosebumps are stronger than those generated unconsciously, Carrasco says he can maximize the strength and resolution of his goosebumps by swaying his head from side to side.

“It’s a weird rhythm, but if I sway my neck, it triggers a really strong response,” Carrasco says. “You know when you squeeze your eyes really tight, and sometimes you hear pressure building, and it’s really just squeezing a muscle in your ears or your eyes. It’s similar to that, but when [the goosebumps] happen, sometimes I can hear that same pressure … it feels relaxing. It feels good.”

Carrasco likes to think it’s a sixth sense. He’s never met anyone else with VGP. But he notices that his son of 19 months sways his head a lot, too. And Carrasco can’t help but wonder, “Does he have the same ability I have?”

Maybe it’s genetic; scientists don't know. Whatever the cause, 30 to 40 times a week, you’ll catch Carrasco exercising his hidden superpower—a thought that just might give you goosebumps.

10 Citizen Science Projects That Need Your Help

A citizen scientist takes a photo of scarlet mushrooms.
A citizen scientist takes a photo of scarlet mushrooms.
lovelypeace/iStock via Getty Images

Channel your inner Nikola Tesla or Marie Curie by participating in actual scientific research, either out and about or without even leaving your couch. These projects unleash the power of the public to be places that researchers can’t be and to spread the workload when data start piling up. They really can’t do it without you.

1. Catalog photos of Earth's cities at night.

Photo from space of a city at night
Identify cities from the photos taken from the International Space Station.
Chris Hadfield, NASA // Public Domain

Cities at Night—a study by Complutense University of Madrid—asks people to catalog images of the Earth at night taken from the International Space Station, part of the millions of images in the Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth database. The current project, Lost at Night, needs people to identify cities within images of 310-mile circles on Earth. Hundreds of volunteers have classified thousands of images already, but classification by multiple individuals ensures greater accuracy. In fact, the project will determine the optimum number of people needed. The primary goal is an open atlas of publicly available nighttime images. Just log on to the image database to help.

2. Follow fish using high-tech tags.

You’ll have to go fishing—an outdoor activity you can do by yourself!—for this assignment. Volunteer to tag fish for the American Littoral Society, whose citizen scientists have tagged more than 640,000 fish since the program began in 1965. You can tag the fish you catch and release, or report tagged fish to the organization. The data is sent to the National Marine Fisheries Service Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where it helps scientists track the populations and movements of coastal species like striped bass, flounder, and bluefish. To get started, become a member of the American Littoral Society, which comes with a packet of tagging gear and instructions.

3. Spy on penguins in Antarctica.

Penguins on an ice floe
Keeping tabs on penguins is one way a citizen scientist can lend a hand.
axily/iStock via Getty Images

Here's another project for those stuck indoors. Penguins are threatened by climate change, fisheries, and direct human disturbance, yet scientists have little data on the birds. To fill in the gaps, 50 cameras throughout the Southern Ocean and Antarctic Peninsula take images of colonies of gentoo, chinstrap, Adélie, and king penguins year-round. You can help the University of Oxford-based research team by sorting through thousands of images to identify and mark individual adult penguins, chicks, and eggs. You'll be pinpointing seasonal and geographic variations in populations that may represent changes to the Antarctic ecosystem. Marking other animals in the images helps researchers figure out which ones are hanging around penguin colonies. Discuss a specific image or the project with the science team and other volunteers in an online forum.

4. Battle an invasive marine species.

Like to dive or snorkel? Make it count by reporting lionfish sightings or captures to the Reef Environmental Education Foundation's Volunteer Reef Survey Project. Lionfish, which are native to the Indo-Pacific, were first sighted in the South Atlantic in 1985 and were likely released by private aquarium owners. Since then, they have spread throughout the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico and caused native fish populations to decline by up to 80 percent. Scientists say this invasion may be one of the century’s greatest threats to warm temperate and tropical Atlantic reefs. You can also join a lionfish derby to catch and kill some of the tasty fish so scientists can analyze their biology.

5. Count birds from your backyard.

Bluebirds at a bird feeder
Bluebirds dine on mealworms at a bird feeder.
MelodyanneM/iStock via Getty Images

North American birds are in trouble. Recent studies predict dramatic declines in the populations of migratory birds due to climate change—and much of the data that went into these studies came from citizen scientists who monitored species without leaving home. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Birds Canada launches Project FeederWatch in the winter months; you simply put out a bird feeder and report the number and species of birds that visit it. Citizen scientists can also join the Cornell Lab's NestWatch—you find a nest, monitor it every three or four days, and report your data. And every February, the Audubon Society runs the Great Backyard Bird Count, in which participants submit data to produce a real-time snapshot of bird populations across North America. Any time of the year, birdwatchers can submit lists of the birds they see on eBird, a huge database of sightings that informs public policy, conservation efforts, and other initiatives.

6. Photograph plants for climate change research.

The Appalachian Mountain Club's Mountain Watch program asks hikers to document alpine and forest plants for ecological research. By taking photos of flowers and fruiting plants along woodland trails and uploading them to the iNaturalist app, participants provide data about the times and places that plants bloom. Scientists then compile the information in an online database and analyze it for trends that could indicate changing climates.

7. Comb through ships' logbooks for weather data.

Old handwritten letters
Practice your handwriting-deciphering skills on the Old Weather project.
scisettialfio/iStock via Getty Images

Ships’ logs from mid-19th century American sailing vessels contain detailed weather observations. Citizen scientists can help transcribe observations from whaling vessels for the Old Weather project; scientists will use the information to learn more about past environmental conditions and create better climate models for future projections. Historians will also use the data to track past ship movements and tell the stories of the people on board.

8. Make American history documents and science notes accessible to more people.

The Smithsonian Libraries are stuffed with original history and science documents that have lain in drawers for decades. Help open up "America's attic" to the public by organizing and transcribing digital versions of handwritten field notebooks, diaries, logbooks, specimen labels, photo albums, and other materials. You'll join thousands of other volunteers to investigate documents like the Sally K. Ride Papers, the collection of the Freedmen's Bureau (which helped former slaves following the Civil War), and field studies of insects by the Irish naturalist Arthur Stelfox.

9. Investigate historical crimes in Australia.

Drawing of a convict ship to Australia
A drawing of a 19th-century convict ship destined for Australia.
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

If you're obsessed with true crime, you'll love this project. Volunteer to investigate and transcribe criminal records from 19th- and 20th-century Australia, which was founded as a British penal colony. Alana Piper, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Australian Centre for Public History at the University of Technology Sydney, will use the transcriptions to construct the "life histories and offending patterns of Australian criminals" from the 1850s to the 1940s. More than 40,000 subjects have been completed so far.

10. Map the unique features of Mars's South Pole.

Travel to Mars—without the hassle of zero gravity or space-vegetable farming—through Planet Four, a citizen science project that is currently tasked with identifying features on Mars's dynamic South Pole. Volunteers examine photos from the HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconaissance Orbiter and pick out "fans" or "blotches" in the landscape of seasonal carbon dioxide ice. Scientists believe these structures indicate wind speed and direction on the Martian surface and offers clues about the evolution of the Red Planet's climate.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER