SiteofWeek090110Scientists using cutting-edge technology to explore waters off northern Indonesia were wowed last month by colorful and diverse images of marine life on the ocean floor—including plate-sized sea spiders and flower-like sponges that appear to be carnivorous.

They predicted that as many as 50 new plant and animal species might have been discovered during the three-week expedition that ended Aug. 14.

More than 100 hours of video and 100,000 photographs, captured using a robotic vehicle with high-definition cameras, were piped to shore in real time by satellite and high-speed internet.

Scientists used a powerful sonar mapping system and the robotic vehicle to explore nearly 21,000 square miles of sea floor at depths ranging from 800 feet to more than two miles.

The mission was carried out by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on a ship called the Okeanos Explorer. Visitors to the expedition’s web site can view the images themselves, and an Education section is geared toward teachers and students.

Verena Tunnicliffe, a professor at the University of Victoria in Canada, said the images provide an extraordinary glimpse into one of the globe’s most complex and little-known marine ecosystems.

“Stalked sea lilies once covered the ocean, shallow and deep, but now are rare,” she said in a written statement. “I’ve only seen a few in my career. But on this expedition, I was amazed to see them in great diversity.”

Likewise, Tunnicliffe also has seen sea spiders before, but those were tiny in comparison, all around one inch long: “The sea spiders … on this mission were huge: eight inches or more across.”

One animal captured on video looks like a flower, covered with glasslike needles, but scientists think it is probably a carnivorous sponge. The pink spikes, covered with sticky tissue, appear to capture food as it passes by.

Other pictures showed a lavender-colored fish walking on the sea floor and the bright red arms of underwater lilies.

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Jeff Festa