“It was like a horror film,” reported 14-year-old Kirill Dudko of Donetsk, Ukraine.
An underwater camera 894 meters (close to 3,000 feet) deep in Barkley Canyon, off Vancouver Island was streaming live Internet video of the seafloor when Dudko witnessed a hagfish get slurped up by some animal that appeared in the corner of the image.
One minute the fish, known for producing enough slime to to clog the gills of sharks and conger eels that have tried to eat it, is hanging out in front of the camera moving just slightly with the current, and then gone. The nose and whiskers of the predator are the only clue.
Surprised and intrigued, Dudko wrote to the University of Victoria, which hosts the NEPTUNE Canada deep-sea camera network. The underwater observatory is designed to allow citizen scientists around the world access to deep-sea activity through the use of a video camera attached to 800-kilometers of fiber-optic cable.
“This creature wasn’t like a fish and I realized it was a mammal because of the nose and mustache,” Dudko reported. “But it did not look like a whale.”
What other mammal is capable of diving 3,000 feet deep? Kim Juniper, NEPTUNE associate science director, consulted marine mammal experts at Fisheries and Oceans and Oregon State University about Dudko’s query and concluded the predator was a female northern elephant seal.
“They’re not so much a diving seal as a surfacing seal. They spend 90 percent of their time under the water,” Juniper told Times Colonist.
And Dudko was the first person to ever see one eat a hagfish.
For a fish that can “secrete so much slime that it turns water in a five-gallon bucket into jelly,” reported Juniper, how a seal might eat one has been a mystery. “Now we know she didn’t bite or chew, she inhaled it,” Juniper said. “She created a low-pressure vacuum around her mouth.”
And instead of using her whiskers to find the fish, Juniper says the video shows the seal looks to have used the lights from the camera, which are turned on for five minutes every two hours.
Dudko told the Times Colonist that he wants to turn his hobby into a career as a marine biologist. “I spend a lot of time watching the NEPTUNE video feeds because I think that the underwater world keeps so many secrets and now it is possible for me to observe the life of its inhabitants online. It is really exciting.”