- NOAA scientists use remotely operated vehicles to explore and photograph deep-sea habitats.
- On Tuesday, an expedition spotted a sea sponge and sea star together a mile deep in the Atlantic.
- A scientist pointed out that the two animals resemble SpongeBob SquarePants and Patrick Star.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
SpongeBob SquarePants may wear classy garb, but real-life sea sponges obviously don’t wear pants. Sea stars like SpongeBob’s partner-in-crime, Patrick, don’t wear swim trunks, either.
Nevertheless, marine scientist Christopher Mah quickly spotted the resemblance between the Nickelodeon cartoon characters and a real-life yellow sponge and pink sea star found deep under the Atlantic waves. A remotely operated deep-sea vehicle spotted the colorful duo on Tuesday on the side of an underwater mountain called Retriever seamount, which is located 200 miles east of New York City.
“I normally avoid these refs… but WOW. REAL LIFE SpongeBob and Patrick!” Mah, a researcher affiliated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, tweeted.
-Christopher Mah (@echinoblog) July 27, 2021
As part of its newest deep-sea expedition, NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer ship is sending remotely-operated vehicles like the one that found the sponge and star more than a mile below the Atlantic’s surface. The ROVs, as they’re known, explore submarine habitats, livestream their journeys, and capture images of denizens in the deep.
“I thought it would be funny to make the comparison, which for once was actually kind of comparable to the iconic images/colors of the cartoon characters,” Mah told Insider via email. “As a biologist who specializes in sea stars, most depictions of Patrick and Spongebob are incorrect.”
Comparing SpongeBob and Patrick to their real-life counterparts
There are more than 8,500 species of sponges, and the creatures have been living in the ocean for the last 600 million years. Their shapes and textures vary depending on whether they live on soft sand or hard, rocky surfaces.
Very few of them resemble SpongeBob’s boxy shape.
But the SpongeBob-like sponge in the image, Mah said, belongs to the genus Hertwigia. He was surprised by its bright yellow color, which is unusual for the deep sea. That far down, most things are orange or white to help them camouflage in the dimly lit environment.
The sea star nearby, known as Chondraster, has five arms covered with tiny suckers. Those allow it to creep across the ocean floor and attach itself to rocks and other organisms. Chondraster stars can be dark pink, light pink, or white.
This star’s color “was a bright pink that strongly evoked Patrick,” Mah said.
Sea stars are carnivores. Once one clings to a clam, oyster, or snail, the animal extends its stomach out through its mouth then uses enzymes to break down and digest its prey.
Sea sponges, in fact, are a preferred menu item for Chondraster stars, Mah said. So the pink Patrick-like creature scooting close to the sponge likely had food, not friendship, in mind.
The image below, taken last week as part of the same NOAA expedition, shows a white sea star, likely a Chondraster, preying on a sponge.
These creatures’ deep-sea habitat is freezing; no sunlight penetrates.
They live “in the true abyss of the ocean,” Mah said, “well below the depth we think of where cartoon SpongeBob and Patrick live.”
Sharing images from the deep
Mah, an expert in sea stars who works at the Smithsonian Museum, hopes to use footage from the Okeanos ROVs to identify new star species.
Since 2010, the program has helped researchers explore the depths below the Hawaiian Islands, the US Pacific Island territories, the Gulf of Mexico, and “all up and down the East Coast,” Mah said. NOAA’s ROVs can traverse deep-sea canyons, sea mounts, and other habitats.
“We have investigated up to 4,600-meter depths [15,000 feet, or almost 3 miles] and seen a wide range of never-before-seen ocean life, including huge deep-sea corals, many deep-sea fish, starfishes, sponges of which many are undescribed species and thus new to science,” Mah said.
He added: “Some of it is very alien and in some cases bizarre.”