As summer reaches its peak and many locations globally are easing restrictions put in place to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, nothing sounds more relaxing than a trip to the seashore. As a Californian, I enjoy a God-given right to “sun, surf, and a day at the beach.” But, to paraphrase an advertising campaign for a well-known film series, you might want to think twice about going back in the water. With beaches all but deserted during stay-at-home orders, all sorts of wildlife is emboldened to venture close to shore—and I’m not talking about canal dolphins.
The World Ocean covers about 71% of our planet’s surface and makes up 99% of Earth’s biosphere—the parts of our planet in which life can thrive. The number of species inhabiting this vast body of water—more than 1.3 billion cubic kilometers—is unknown. In excess of 80% of our planet’s ocean remains “unmapped, unobserved, and unexplored.”
There’s an upside to all this: unless you are a deep-sea researcher (in which case, I hope you have a good therapist), you will probably never encounter the 9 terrifying deep-sea creatures described in this listicle. Unless, of course, global warming results in irreversible disruption of abyssal ecosystems, leaving these nightmarish denizens of the deep no choice but to surface to feed on bikini-clad bodies. Even if we manage to avoid that likely outcome, simply knowing that these things exist is enough to disrupt your sleep for years to come and make you wonder what kind of intelligence could conceive of such diabolical designs.
Without further ado, here are 9 terrifying deep-sea creatures to haunt your nightmares.
9 Terrifying Deep-Sea Creatures to Haunt Your Nightmares
1. Flesh-Eating Bacteria
Have you ever swallowed a mouthful of seawater? Then you should probably avoid looking at ocean water under a microscope or doing any research into the many bacteria that call our oceans home.
Up to 90% of all life in the ocean, by weight, is microbial, and the deep ocean plays host to some incredibly resilient strains. Due to bacteria’s relatively instantaneous evolution rate and the prevalence of antibiotic use in modern medicine, deadly superbugs like MRSA—Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus—are a growing concern on land, but what about in the ocean? (In case you were wondering, Staph is one of the bacteria that can cause necrotizing fasciitis, aka flesh-eating disease.) It turns out that some of the bacteria found in the deep ocean make MRSA sound like a stroll through the daffodils. Fattened on whale falls, resistant to all human-tolerated antibiotics, and capable of surviving both boiling and freezing temperatures, these flesh-devouring microbes won’t give up until your beach body has been reduced to a puddle of goop. Oh, and here’s the best part: while these little critters normally reside thousands of meters below the surface, recent studies have shown that they’re more than capable of hitching a ride on deep-diving sperm whales or even manmade submersibles.
Not to worry, though. As long as you don’t go swimming with any open cuts, wounds, or abrasions, you’ll probably be okay.
2. Dhampir Squid
You may have heard of the vampire squid, or Vampyroteuthis infernalis—literally the “vampire squid from Hell.” Despite its intimidating name and fearsome appearance—when threatened, the vampire squid inverts its blood-red “cape,” exposing wicked, curved barbs—this football-sized cephalopod is actually quite harmless to living creatures, subsisting instead on “marine snow,” the floating clumps of decomposing material that are ubiquitous in the deep ocean.
The same cannot be said for the dhampir squid, recently discovered by a team of marine scientists based in Gothenburg, Sweden. Similar in appearance to its diminutive cousin, the seven-foot-long dhampir squid boasts a cape-like membrane connecting its eight arms, which are lined by proportionately sized spines. Unlike the case of the vampire squid, these spines serve a predatory function, injecting the dhampir squid’s prey with a potent neurotoxin. Victims of this “kiss of death” appear to lose all higher brain function, following the dhampir squid as if in a trance while it slowly feeds on their flesh. A mature dhampir squid can be accompanied by a train of up to a dozen “thralls” at any given time. The dhampir squid’s flesh is totally colorless.
The true horror, however, can’t be seen until the moment the dhampir squid spreads its fleshy cape to strike, revealing the perfect likeness of a wizened human face centered around the squid’s razor-sharp beak. This explains the squid’s common name: a dhampir, in Balkan folklore, is the result of a union between vampire and human.
3. Mimic Coral
Mimicry is a common survival mechanism in the animal kingdom. In the aquatic realm, it’s most often associated with cephalopods, such as the incredible mimic octopus. However, there’s one species that is so effective a mimic that marine biologists can’t decide whether or not it even exists!
The mimic coral, if real, is not a true coral, though scientists who acknowledge its existence believe it belongs to the phylum Cnidaria, which includes corals, sea anemones, and jellies. Like all Cnidarians, mimic corals are thought to employ stinging cells called nematocysts to trap and disable prey. The current taxonomic theory—again, among those experts inclined to believe that it does, in fact, exist—holds that the mimic coral belongs to the class Imatanta, of which it is the sole species.
The other camp—which, unfortunately, currently comprises the majority of the scientific community—argues so-called “mimic corals” are true corals, and that the deaths attributed to “mimic coral attacks” are merely the tragic outcome of poorly planned, inadequately supervised night dives. Reports of reefs opening up to swallow a submarine whole, they argue, are mere oceanological folk tales, the kind of thing that’s passed around at academic retreats but not deserving of serious inquiry. Those who investigate these legends as if they were fact, they warn, will find they have a very difficult time getting published, and may see their tenure applications receiving particularly harsh scrutiny.
4. Ovum Whale
If you’re like most people, the word “whale” conjures up images of colossal skeletons overhanging the halls of aquariums and natural history museums. If so, you might be disappointed to learn that the rare ovum whale is among the world’s smallest cetaceans, clocking in at a little over two meters from rostrum to fluke. Nor is it particularly dangerous—in fact, ovum whales are so reserved that they’ve only been captured on film twice.
No, it’s entirely on the merit of its unsettling appearance that the ovum whale earns its spot on this list. Nearly as wide as it is long, the ovum whale is a roughly egg-shaped mass of translucent flesh. When lit from the front, the skin of the the ovum whale turns an opaque, milky white, obscuring the vague, shadowy shapes that can sometimes be glimpsed floating within the cocoon of its body like cubes of meat in aspic. Illuminate one from behind, however, as seen in this 2012 footage, and you’re in for a nasty shock: in the very center of the whale’s mass, suspended by opaque filaments like some grim marionette, is a much smaller whale, about the size of a human newborn. A complex network of blood vessels appears to both sustain this homunculus, which is the glossy red of exposed muscle tissue, and lash it in place. Strangely, no other bones, muscles, or major organs are visible, leaving it a mystery just how these gentle giants get around.
5. Neighbor Shark
Don’t let the friendly moniker fool you—the neighbor shark is a cold-blooded killer. Unlike the better-known frilled shark (aka a dental hygienist’s worst nightmare) or goblin shark (with its xenomorph-style double jaws), the newly discovered neighbor shark has an unassuming visage. The only notable thing about it is its broad, welcoming smile. Its teeth are perfectly straight, perfectly white, and perfectly aligned—and always on display. On closer inspection, you’ll see the reason why: the neighbor shark lacks lips, leaving its high-beam dentition permanently exposed. The warmth of the neighbor shark’s unbroken grin is offset by its cold, dead eyes—like a doll’s eyes.
As if that weren’t creepy enough, new research shows that the neighbor shark is the only known shark species to vocalize. Recordings taken at 20,000 feet captured this unique sonic phenomenon. In a remarkably human register, the neighbor shark appears to be calling out to someone or something, though researchers have yet to determine what, if anything, these vocalizations signify.
6. Infinity Octopus
The infinity octopus is, without a doubt, the least understood and most mysterious creature on this planet. Even that point is open to debate—according to certain fringe theories, it doesn’t exist entirely on this planet, or even in this dimension. The debate isn’t likely to be settled anytime soon, either, as the discoverers of the infinity octopus—Drs. Leonard Orzech and Waldemar Dzikowski of the University of Gdańsk Institute of Oceanography—perished in an unexplained fire the day after publishing their preliminary report. Their original notes, along with all existing footage of the infinity octopus, were destroyed in the same blaze. Soon after this tragedy, the infamous report was retracted from the pages of Oceanological and Hydrobiological Studies, to be replaced by a study on the alimentary contents of great cormorant nestlings in the Włocławek Reservoir in central Poland. No explanation for the change was given. Those who had previously downloaded or linked to the issue in question found their hard drives corrupted by a remarkably virulent bit of malware. Where are you when we need you, John McAfee!?
All we now know about the infinity octopus is based on the memories of those few individuals who actually read the Orzech-Dzikowski report before it was so effectively scrubbed from the web. About fifty of those readers have been identified, among whom twelve remain—readers of the Orzech-Dzikowski report exhibit a statistically significant prevalence of successful suicide. The twelve surviving readers can agree on almost nothing about the report—including details such as pagination, the presence or absence of figures and slides, and where and under what circumstances the purported discovery occurred—except for the fact that it concerned the discovery of a creature Orzech and Dzikowski had dubbed the “infinity octopus” (in Polish, of course). As for why it was this name was chosen, theories here are even more varied. (Its scientific name, Hapalochlaena infinitum, doesn’t do much to clear things up.) Some recall reading about an octopod of prodigious, even continent-spanning size, while others insist that the creature was roughly the size of a harp seal, but with an uncountable number of appendages. There are even those who hold that the infinity octopus is not a flesh-and-blood creature but a kind of allegory—though it’s anybody’s guess what for.
7. Clonal Colony of Vanished Twins
Multiple births are uncommon in the human species—just a little over 3% of births result in twins, triplets, or other multiples. That means the odds that you, reader, have a twin that you know about are pretty darn low—you’re more likely to be a millionaire in the U.S. than to have a surviving twin. But what about twins you don’t know about?
Vanishing twin syndrome, also known as twin embolization syndrome or twin resorption, occurs when one or more embryos in a set of multiples begins developing normally but dies in utero. The dead twins are then “absorbed” by the surviving sibling. This can manifest in health challenges, unusual growths or birthmarks, or genetic chimerism, in which one organism houses multiple distinct sets of genetic material. There was even a case, reported in TIME, in which a man’s child was fathered by his unborn twin.
But what happens when a vanished twin is not absorbed by the surviving fetus? It ends up here, in the clonal colony of vanished twins. Similar to the string-like siphonophore galaxies observed in deep-sea environments, which can grow to nearly 400 feet in length, the clonal colony of vanished twins appears to be a single organism but is in fact composed of millions of interconnected and interdependent “clones.” Except, in this case, those millions of organisms are the vanished twins of humans on the surface. Imagine encountering this mile-long flesh train and seeing your own face staring back at you.
8. Penrose Tube Worm
Tube worms are like the segmented worms we have on the surface (think earthworms and nightcrawlers)…except they spend their entire lives planted in one spot, growing their own home in the form of a sheath or tube of hard minerals. Some look like beautiful underwater flowers, while others resemble a certain part of the male anatomy. So far, so weird, right? For the Penrose tube worm, that’s only the beginning.
Penrose tube worms belong to the genus Lamellibrachia, which live in deep-ocean areas where hydrocarbons like oil and natural gas seep out of the seafloor. Rather than ingesting plants, animals, or microbes, they derive all their nutrition from endosymbiotic bacteria that process sulfides in their environment. The big difference is that, while other tube worms plant themselves directly into the mineral bed, Penrose tube worms plant themselves into themselves, forming free-floating, entirely self-contained ecosystems, adapting the form of diverse Penrose polygons and other impossible objects. Nothing escapes this closed system except an occasional snatch of radio noise that some have interpreted as a badly degraded recording of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. Their biomechanics are so efficient that the theoretical lifespan of the Penrose tube worm has no upper limit. Millennia in the future, when the last building has crumbled into dust, they will still be there, spinning quietly. Pretty trippy, huh?
9. Phantom Waves
That, however, only describes the waves that we can measure. By definition, phantom waves can neither be seen nor felt. Yet most people can sense when one is rolling through down below. Have you ever been out on a boat on still waters and felt something crawling over your bones, lapping at the base of your skull? That was a phantom wave. While they originate in the deep sea, the largest ones can break tens of thousands of feet above sea level. No spot on Earth is safe from them.
You will know them by the fine, mile-long sheets of translucent material they leave behind. They are capable of enveloping entire towns or city skyscrapers. This phantom wave residue cannot be tested, as it dissipates instantaneously when subjected to touch, light, or heat, but it must be doing something.
All images were created using ArtBreeder.