The Nekton Maldives Mission

(Nekton Maldives Mission [c] Nekton 2022)

For as long as most can remember, the Maldives has been one of the most talked-about dream tourism destinations. With its sprawling beaches and impossibly blue seas, who wouldn’t want to kick back and enjoy a mimosa or two at this dreamy abode?

And as effectively as this archipelagic state has managed to tourist-trap millions every year, researchers have discovered a similar trend in the haven’s deep aquatic life, now dubbed ‘The Trapping Zone’. Here, various random marine organisms congregate in what is one of the most unique and bizarre underwater ecosystems ever found, and indulge in what might be the largest daily mass migration ever recorded on the planet.

This ‘Oasis of life’ dwells about 500 metres below the surface of one of the Maldives’ 26 coral atolls, where the mighty Satho Rahaa deep sea mountain rests its volcanic crown. The massive seamount spans about 300 metres below the ocean surface at its summit and plunges to at least 1,500 metres at its base.

At about 200 metres from its summit, you will find unglamorous rocky ridges and structures that look surprisingly like a sizeable underwater desert. As desertified as it may look, this is where large amounts of lively micronekton — tiny aquatic organisms between 2 and 20 centimetres in size — make their home.

Every morning, these tiny organisms swim downwards and get trapped within the ridges and fossilised reefs of the desert. When scientists pointed their lights onto these fishes, you’d think this was a convention for introverts trying to shy away from conversations into every nook and hole they could find in the rocky aquatic surface.

A bramble shark, spotted on the Nekton Maldives Mission (Nekton Maldives Mission [c] Nekton 2022)

A bramble shark, spotted on the Nekton Maldives Mission

(Nekton Maldives Mission [c] Nekton 2022)

However, the openness of the area also makes this an open buffet for larger predators. Researchers found schools of tuna, ravenous sharks and other deepwater fish feasting on these enmeshed itty-bitty creatures as well.

Not only does this daily vertical migration of the micronekton and its interaction with their predators makes this area very clustered in life, but the researchers also discovered incredible diversity within it. They found tiger sharks, scalloped hammerhead sharks and even the rare and elusive bramble sharks in the area!

“Why is this occurring? Is this something that’s specific at 500 meters, does this life go even deeper, what is this transition, what is there, and why?” wonders marine scientist Lucy Woodall from the University of Oxford.

This discovery also highlights micronektons themselves, whose study could help us understand underwater food cycles much more closely. Additionally, since many species we depend on for food are dependent on these organisms (such as tuna), this could greatly influence conservation efforts to make fishing much more sustainable.

A fish spotted on the Nekton Maldives Mission (Nekton Maldives Mission [c] Nekton 2022)

A fish spotted on the Nekton Maldives Mission

(Nekton Maldives Mission [c] Nekton 2022)

“This has all the hallmarks of a distinct new ecosystem,” says marine biologist Alex Rogers from the University of Oxford. “The Trapping Zone is creating an oasis of life in the Maldives and it is highly likely to exist in other oceanic islands and also on the slopes of continents.”

You can read more about the Nekton Maldives Mission here.

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