Bizarre Sea Creatures
Considering the ocean covers more than 70 percent of the surface of our planet, it’s incredible how little we know about life under the sea.
What we do know proves that truth is stranger than fiction: From fish with flashlights in their foreheads to massive sea worms that look like they’re out of a sci-fi film, the sea creatures we've identified are extraordinary — and extraordinarily bizarre.
Some of these fantastic creatures can be seen via boat, kayak, snorkeling, scuba or diving expedition. Others can only be observed in museums or aquariums. And some are found at such exceptional depths, they may only be viewed via live or archival film footage.
In any case, seeing these strange creatures is proof that our planet is truly spectacular. Here are some of the most unusual sea creatures ever found on earth.
Halimeda Ghost Pipefish
The Halimeda ghost pipefish gets its ghostly reputation from its ability to be incredibly still at depths of up to 75 feet. It ranges in color from lime green to bright red to white, with a head that is equivalent in length to its body.
It often camouflages itself among coral or algae, mimicking its surroundings in both color and pattern.
Where it lives: The tropical Indo-west-central Pacific, including the Maldives, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Fiji
How to find it: Check out archival footage through the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) or see one on a dive. Three Murex Dive Resorts in Indonesia tout regular sightings of the extraordinary fish, which is often found camouflaged among the coral reef.
Cute and colorful, the lumpsucker fish gets its name from the suction cups found on its under-surface. These allow the fish to anchor itself to rocks — a much-needed feature, since its round body and tiny fins make it a poor swimmer.
Interestingly, male lumpsuckers rear their (350,000!) eggs after fertilization until they are hatched, while the mothers-to-be swim off and lead a largely solitary existence.
Where it lives: predominately off the Washington coast in the U.S. and the North Atlantic off the coast of Iceland
How to find it: Take a dive, or head to the Seattle Aquarium.
Fangtooths are so terrifyingly ugly, they are sometimes called “ogrefish.” With disproportionately large teeth for their tiny, 7-inch bodies, fangtooths can be found at depths of up to 16,400 feet — making them among the deepest-living fish alive.
Unlike other deep-sea fish, however, fangtooths are active hunters, relying on their keen sense of smell and the help of sunlight to find and catch smaller fish and crustaceans.
Where it lives: the Coral Sea, off the eastern coast of Australia, and off the Western seaboard of America
How to find it: Check out archival footage from Nautilus Live, which explores the depths of the ocean floor using remotely-operated vehicles. The fish is also in the collection of the Field Museum in Chicago.
The fact that this creature has the word “vampire” in its name is probably a dead giveaway to how creepy it is. Though it gets its name from its ability to fold its webbed arms over its head, like a vampire does a cloak, what really makes it scary are its red eyes and luminescent body.
Since it lives in the dark, at depths of up to 3,000 feet, the vampire squid can also turn off its lights (or rather, its photophores, which create light through a process called bioluminescence).
This makes the squid entirely invisible at its usual depths. Combine that with a siphon jet, which propels the squid through water at a rate of two body lengths per second, and you have the ultimate predator — invisible and fast.
Where it lives: the North Pacific, including off the coast of the Aleutian Islands
How to find it: Given the depths it resides in, your best bet is archival (or live) footage from the Nautilus. It's also occasionally displayed at museums, as it recently was at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.
The pinecone fish is a small, five-inch critter with one particularly incredible feature — a light-producing organ, called a photophore, located on each side of its head. Interestingly, the use of this organ isn’t quite understood by scientists: Some believe it aids communication, while others speculate it enhances vision and hunting abilities.
Also called the pineapple fish (fittingly, given its affinity for the tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific and the fact that, well, it looks like a pineapple), its distinctive pinecone markings are actually black-outlined scales.
Where it lives: The Indo-West Pacific Ocean, from South Africa and Mauritius to Indonesia, Southern Japan, New Zealand and Australia
How to find it: Try a night dive in Aliwal Shoal, South Africa.
Despite their name, flying gurnards don’t actually fly. Rather, they extend their fins into blue-fringed wings as a defense mechanism when they’re threatened; the wings make them look bigger and scare off predators.
Their elongated fins have another creative use, too: They’re used to crawl along the seabed in search of food, prodding rocks and sometimes turning them over in hopes of revealing small fish, bivalves and crustaceans.
Where it lives: the Indo-Pacific and Atlantic Ocean, including the Caribbean Sea off the coast of the Cayman Islands
How to find it: This unique creature can be hard to find, but you may be able to spot one on a diving expedition.
Despite their frightening moniker, megamouth sharks are actually harmless — they feed on plankton and krill. Their “mega” mouths are slanted downward, in a rather disapproving manner, and their teeth filter their prey as they swim. They are relaxed and slow swimmers, reaching a maximum speed of 1.3 miles per hour.
Be aware that finding one of these beasts is exceedingly challenging: Only some 100 megamouth sharks have been sighted since their discovery in 1973.
Where it lives: the Pacific, including off the coast of Kaneohe, Hawaii
How to find it: Check out archival footage or come face to face with a (dead) specimen at the Western Australian Maritime Museum in Fremantle.
Kroyer's Deep-Sea Anglerfish
With a balloon-like body covered in tiny spines, Kroyer's deep-sea anglerfish is quite the hunter. It lures its prey straight into its large, gaping mouth using light from a bioluminescent stalk attached to its head. More interestingly, since females (4 feet) are considerably larger than males (6 inches), males attach themselves to females to feed in a parasitic manner.
Talk about getting a free ride!
Where it lives: the North Atlantic, including off the coast of Portugal
How to find it: Find specimens in museums, like the Royal Ontario Museum, or check out archival footage from MBARI.
Slender Snipe Eel
Even though it barely weighs a few ounces, the slender snipe eel reaches 5 feet in length in adulthood. Its bird-like beak and hooked teeth serve in catching shrimps and other crustaceans as it swims. (Since its beak doesn’t close on the ends, forming a slender “V” shape, it’s easy for the eel to trap food.)
But what is perhaps most fascinating about the animal is its 750 vertebrae — more vertebrae than any other animal on earth.
The snipe eel’s body is also so slender that it is 75 times as long as it is wide!
Where it lives: the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of California
How to find it: Your best bet is archival footage from the Nautilus, though it has been seen on dives too.
These fish use eyes on top of their heads to keep watch for prey after they bury themselves in the sand. They also have upward-facing mouths and venomous spines on their bodies. Some species of stargazers are even more deadly, capable of producing electric shocks in addition to disarming their prey with venom.
So their romantic name is a bit misleading…
Where it lives: the Alboran Sea, off the coast of southern Spain, and Indonesia, among other places
How to find it: Diving companies that promise a potential sighting of this rare fish include Mikuma Diving Expeditions, on its expeditions off Indonesia's Raja Ampat Islands.
Giant oarfish are the world’s longest bony fish, so-named because of their long, oar-shaped pelvic fins. The massive creatures can reach up to 56 feet in length and weigh up to 600 pounds.
Unlike many fish, oarfish have no scales, and they swim in an undulating manner, much like snakes. Because of this — and their imposing, ribbon-like appearance — they are often the creatures in question in so-called “sea serpent” sightings.
Where it lives: ocean-wide, most prominently in the Sea of Japan and East China Sea
How to find it: This immense fish is one of the more accessible on the list to find; look out for it on a boat or kayak trip.
The frilled shark gets its cutesy name from its abundance of frilled gills, but don’t be fooled: This creature is the stuff of nightmares.
Its jaws are lined with 25 teeth, each of which has several trident-shaped prongs. In other words, its teeth have teeth, and once anything is hooked to them, there is no escape. Creepier still is the fact that it hovers in water because it is naturally buoyant (thanks to the optimal amount of low-density fats in its liver), so when it sees prey, all it has to do is lunge to kill.
Where it lives: in scattered areas throughout the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, including off the coast of South Africa; near New Zealand, New South Wales and Tasmania in Australia; and off the coast of Hawaii and Southern California
How to find it: A well-preserved specimen is on display at the Enoshima Aquarium in Fujisawa, Japan.
Japanese Spider Crab
Though they start off as microscopic larvae, Japanese spider crabs can reach lengths of up to 18 feet from claw to claw. What’s more, they tend to have hundred-year lifespans — and the more they age, the bigger they get.
Their legs are surprisingly strong. And despite being otherwise lazy hunters (they prefer to scavenge), they can use their claws to crack open clams and muscles with ease.
Where it lives: primarily off the coast of Japan
How to find it: Get your diving gear on, or head to the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta.
Also called the mola mola, the ocean sunfish is the world’s heaviest bony fish, weighing up to 5,100 pounds and measuring 10.8 feet in length. Despite its size, much of the ocean fish’s body is actually made of cartilage (which is considerably lighter than bone).
What really makes this fish unique is its flat shape and large fins — since its tail fin is essentially useless, its dorsal and ventral fins are what do most of the work in moving it around the ocean.
Where it lives: the Alboran Sea, off the coast of southern Spain; in the Western Pacific off Japan; in the Gulf of Mexico; and many other places around the world
How to find it: Since the ocean sunfish tends to bop its head near the sea surface, you can easily spot one by diving, snorkeling, taking a boat ride or even looking down from a helicopter.
Otherwise known as the spookfish, the barreleye lives up to its name with its supernatural appearance.
The fish lives at depths of 2,500 feet, where even the tiniest bit of light can help in finding a meal. As such, it benefits immensely from its transparent forehead with barrel-shaped eyes, which can detect light in the darkness.
When it was first discovered in 1939 and brought to the surface, its body had collapsed on account of the pressure difference — a disturbing sight.
Where it lives: Monterey Bay along the Western Pacific Coast of the U.S.
How to find it: It wasn’t until the 2000s that researchers were able to get deep-diving remotely-operated vehicles with cameras to record this fish in its natural habitat.
Kalinga Ornata Nudibranch
Colloquially called “sea slugs,” these mollusks look like cartoony blobs with red spots.
A nocturnal species, the Kalinga ornata typically lives at depths of 20 feet, but it has been spotted by deep-sea rovers at depths of as much as 590 feet. It survives exclusively on a diet of brittle stars.
Where it lives: shallow waters of the Indo-Pacific, including near Taiwan
How to find it: Try a diving trip to see one in the wild.
Voted the ugliest animal alive in 2013 by the Ugliest Animal Preservation Society, the blob sculpin has gotten a bad rap in recent years. While it looks fat, grumpy and indeed “blob”-like when out of water, it typically lives at depths of 9,800 feet, surrounded by permanent darkness. So in its native habitat, it looks quite different, as you can barely see it at all.
The blob sculpin has very little muscle tone — like most bottom-dwellers, it waits for food to come to it, and swims very little.
So maybe “blob” is an apt descriptor after all…
Where it lives: North Pacific, including off the coast of Washington
How to find it: Check out archival footage from the Nautilus, or see a specimen in person at the Aquamarine Fukushima aquarium in Japan.
The goblin shark is as terrifying as it sounds, with translucent skin lacking in pigment and a long, sinister snout. Like so many alien creatures, it’s found in the bowels of the ocean, at depths of up to 4,000 feet.
The goblin shark can get quite big (the largest recorded was 12 feet long and weighed 463 pounds), but what makes the creature truly terrifying is its jaw. It can be opened to a 111-degree angle, which it catapults towards its prey at a speed of 10.1 feet per second.
Where it lives: mostly in the Sagami and Saruga Bays in Japan, but also places including Kaikoura, New Zealand and southern Africa
How to find it: Since it tends to stay at depths of close to 4,000 feet, your best bet is archival footage.
The tripod fish has elongated, thin fins that raise it well above the seabed (like a tripod), as well as long pectoral fins that it holds above its head like antennae. When prey approaches in the darkness, the tripod fish awaits in absolute stillness until it can redirect the prey into its mouth using its pectoral fins.
Since this method of hunting requires minimal energy (the prey comes to it), and it remains largely in darkness, the tripod fish’s eyes have been reduced over time, to the point that they’ve almost entirely disappeared.
Where it lives: the Caribbean Sea, off the coast of Jamaica, as well as Northern Australia and Indonesia
How to find it: Check out archival footage via the Nautilus.
Giant Tube Worm
First discovered in 1977, giant tube worms are invertebrates that can reach 8 feet in length and 1.6 inches in diameter. Capable of withstanding extreme temperatures, they are often found near boiling-hot hydrothermal vents — fissures on the seafloor that release fluids.
Their bodies are anchored to rocks and encased in hard, white tubes with rose-bud openings called “plumes.” These plumes take in hydrogen sulfide from the water, which the worms convert into sulfur crystals in order to produce energy.
Where it lives: the Guaymas Basin in the Gulf of California
How to find it: Alas, you can’t see the giant tube worm in person, but watch for one on Nautilus Live.