Revealed: The mysterious world and inhabitants of Galapagos’ deeply submerged islands

Published in the National geographic voices. 10 January 2018.

Did you know that there are submerged islands called seamounts in the deep-sea around the Galápagos Islands? In this post, I discuss the latest nerdy but cool findings and challenges in researching Galapagos deep-sea environments.

Giant gorgonian with squat lobsters found at 478 meters during the Nautilus cruise Ocean Exploration Trust in 2015. © Ocean Exploration Trust/Charles Darwin Foundation

My first time studying the deep-sea was in 2008, as an intern, doing my bachelor’s degree thesis at the Marine Science Institute of Barcelona. At that time, I was analyzing hours of videos from the manned submersible JAGO and the remotely operated vehicle Super Achilles between depths of 200 and 800 meters. I was amazed by the biodiversity in these remote ecosystems, such as the cold-water-coral, deep-sea communities at the Gulf of Lions canyons. Little was known by then, and still very little is known now, on the species that inhabit these places! Destiny (and persistence) brought me back to study this amazing deep-sea world nine years later in the Galapagos, to lead the deep-sea and seamounts of the Galapagos Marine Reserve Project at the Charles Darwin Foundation.

Observing the essence of evolution

When I visited the Galapagos Islands for the first time as a tourist, I got to see the essence of evolution observing the giant tortoises and Darwin finches. I had the opportunity to enjoy diving and snorkeling to see the amazing marine biodiversity, including the marine icons of Galapagos: sharks, marine iguanas and sea lions. But there is a hidden place that I didn’t see as a tourist, and Darwin didn’t get to see it either: the Galapagos deep-sea, and in particular the submerged islands of Galapagos!

The deep-sea (considered the waters below 200m/656ft) represents the vast majority (97%) of the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Yet, we know very little as historically it has been technologically and economically challenging to study these remote places. But, we know the deep sea contains different ecosystems, and the organisms that live there tolerate harsh environments, in a space with extreme temperatures and no light. However, within the vast deep-sea, there are underwater mountains, called seamounts, that are often teeming with life.

A mix of hard substrate and nutrient-rich waters creates the right conditions for some hardy deep-sea colonizers such as corals, sponges, other invertebrates and fishes. This congregation of mysterious animals often forms complex and beautiful deep-sea reef ecosystems, that host impressive biodiversity and provide numerous ecosystem services. For example, seamounts support both local artisanal fisheries that rely on many deep-sea-dwelling fish species, and also tourism (“pesca vivencial”) in the Galapagos Marine Reserve.

Seamounts are underwater mountains rich of biodiversity that rise from the seafloor but don’t reach the sea surface. There are estimated to be more than 350 in the Galapagos Marine Reserve and 100,000 around the world that are more than 1 km in height, and speculatively 25 million more than 100 meters in height (Staudigel et al., 2010; Wessel et al., 2010).

During my last year on the seamounts project, we have worked intensely to identify the species collected on previous deep-sea expeditions and characterize these deep-sea communities. From the hundreds of hours of video and specimens collected between 200 and 3,500 meters (or 11,483 feet), we have identified more than 200 species, working collaboratively with around 30 international taxonomists.

We are developing the first interactive deep-sea species guide for the Galapagos and East Tropical Pacific region. “It’s been fascinating to be studying and describing the first characterization of these mysterious deep-sea ecosystems, from discovering species that are new to science to developing different tools for sharing this novel biology with others,” says Salomé Buglass, marine ecologist on the seamounts project at the Charles Darwin Foundation. Out of 114 specimens collected and identified, 80 are new records from the Galapagos, from which 35 are being described as new species ((Marti-Puig et al., n.d.). This reflects how little we know about this deep-sea world and how much remains to be discovered! As the marine biologist Paul Snelgrove said: “We know more about the surface of the moon and about Mars than we do about the deep-sea floor”.

Seamounts team 2017 explaining what is a seamount. From left to right: Theo Ison (master student), Alizé Bouriat (volunteer), Patricia Martí Puig (project leader), Camila Arnés (research intern), Marie Creemers (master student), Salomé Buglass (marine ecologist) and Isaac Neodarine (volunteer). Photo credits: Ana Moya.

One of the most amazing discoveries was a new genus of sponge with a particular morphology, “kebab-shaped”, which is currently being described by our collaborator sponge taxonomist Dr. Henry Reiswig. “This sponge has a unique body structure never seen before in any known sponge group,” says Dr. Reiswig. “In the architecture of its skeleton, it appears to be closely related to the demosponge genus Phelloderma, but it is clearly not a member to that genus by its bizarre body form. What is most surprising is that it is a carnivorous sponge, distinct and separate from the well-known group of carnivorous cladorhizid sponges.”

New genus of sponge from the family Phellodermidae. © Ocean Exploration Trust / Charles Darwin Foundation

We also found new records in the Galapagos of interesting species such as the deep-sea octopus Graneledone sp. This octopus has an egg-brooding period of three years, the longest ever recorded in the animal kingdom (Robinson et al 2014).

New register for the Galapagos. Octopus (Graneledone sp.) found at 1022.19 meters during Nautilus cruise-Ocean Exploration trust (2015). © Ocean Exploration Trust/ Charles Darwin Foundation

Another interesting finding is the extreme (and perhaps record) depth of some fish of local commercial importance. For example, the “brujo” (Pontinus sp.), a common species for the artisanal fisheries in the Galapagos was found at depths of 1067 meters (3,500 feet).

Pontinus sp. recorded at the Galapagos Marine Reserve. This species was observed between 50 and 1067 meters. © Ocean Exploration Trust / Charles Darwin Foundation

Around the world, the deep-sea and seamounts are facing many impacts, including commercial fishing, deep-sea mining and climate change. Even though they are considered priority habitats for conservation, only a small percentage is protected (Alder and Wood, 2004). In the Galapagos Marine Reserve, these habitats have been protected from industrial fishing since the creation of the sanctuary in 1998, but this does not mean that they are not vulnerable to the other impacts.

Currently, the major challenge to implement the conservation of deep-sea biodiversity has been to demonstrate the link between deep-sea species and direct benefits to society. In 2017, we did our first socio-economic study based on the tourists visiting the Galapagos Islands ((Ison, 2017)). This study demonstrated that tourists were on average willing to pay U.S. $50.22 more for the conservation of these ecosystems, which is equal to, or even more, than the willingness to pay for shallower ecosystems.

“Connecting the public with deep-sea ecosystems by increasing their understanding for deep-sea ecosystem services should help to close the knowledge gap and pave the way for better protection of seamounts in the GMR and globally, says Theo Ison, researcher at Edinburg University. Moreover, tourists are willing to pay more for a system where fisheries, tourism and conservation management are integrated.

This study highlights the importance of including cultural ecosystem services to inform marine conservation and management.

Even though we cannot see them, seamounts are important for us! For that reason, it is even more important to connect people to the deep-sea world. Thus, in 2017 we organized several social campaigns and talks with the aim to promote education and awareness to the local community and tourists. Read more at A Dive Into the Galapagos Deep Sea on World Oceans Day.

But there is still a lot more to do…We need to keep studying the deep-sea, connect people with these remote places, and protect them for future generations.

The seamounts team doing education and outreach to promote seamounts to the local community. Photo credit: Patricia Martí Puig.

About me

Dr. Patricia Martí Puig

About the project

The Seamounts Research Project for the Galapagos Marine Reserve was launched in 2015 by the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galapagos National Park. Four Research expeditions were organized between 2015-2016, aboard the Nautilus (Ocean Exploration Trust), Argos/Pristine Seas (National Geographic), and two with the Alucia (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute), exploring a total of 27 seamounts.

This project consists of an ecological and socio-economical characterization of seamounts inside the Galapagos Marine Reserve with the aim of establishing a biodiversity baseline and study their socio-economic value. This information is essential to inform decision making and management of the Galapagos Marine Reserve, particularly in regards to the new zoning scheme (2016) led by the Galapagos National Park Directorate.

Our next steps are to finish with the identification of the species found during these deep-sea campaigns and developing a deep-sea species guide for the Galapagos Marine Reserve. We also plan to identify the number of seamounts present at the Galapagos Marine Reserve and map them with the available bathymetry data. We will continue quantifying the ecosystem services that seamounts provide to the local community and tourists and keep educating about their importance.

Moreover, we plan to organize new deep-sea field campaigns to keep studying these ecosystems. However, as these activities require skilled staff and have high field costs, we need the support from our donors to continue with this project. Link for funding

Collaborators (2017)

Patricia Martí Puig (FCD), Salome Buglass (FCD), Camila Arnés (FCD), Nicolas Moity (FCD), Marie Creemers (FCD), Isaac Neodarine (FCD), Theo Ison (FCD), Alizé Bouriat (FCD), Michael Tanner (FCD), Belén Yanez (FCD), Daniel Unda (FCD), Pelayo Salinas de León (FCD), Dr. José Marín (FCD), Etienne Rastoin (FCD), Daniela Vilema (FCD), Julio Rodríguez (FCD), Gustavo Morejón (FCD), Eduardo Espinoza (DPNG), Harry Reyes Mackliff; (DPNG), Rafael Bermudez (ESPOL), Douglas Long (St Mary’s College), Juan Armando Sanchez (Universidad de los Andes), Nicole Raineault (Ocean Exploration Trust), Brennan Phillips (University of Rhode Island), Leigh Marsh (Southampton University), Les Watling (University of Hawaii), Richard Preziosi (Manchester University), Adam Soule (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution), Dan Fornari (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution), Dorsey Wanless (Universidad Boise State), Meghan Jones (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution), Henry Reiswig (University of Victoria), Tom Glebas (VideoRay), Stephane Hourdez (Station Biologique de Roscoff), Greg Rouse (University of California, Los Angeles), Prashant Sharma (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Laura Robinson (University of Bristol), Tim O’Hara (Museum Victoria), Mary K. Wicksten, (Texas A&M University), Keiji Baba (Kumamoto University), Ole Tendal (Zoologisk Museum), Bruce Ott (Khoyatan Marine Laboratory), Andrea Quatrinni (Harvey Mudd College), Stephen Cairns (Smithsonian Institution), Christopher Mah (Smithsonian Institution), Shane Timothy Ahyong, (Australian Museum Research Institute), Chong Chen (Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology), Julia Sigwart (University of California, Berkeley), Jean-François Flot (Université Libre de Bruxelles), Gustava Paulay (University of Florida), Nicole Joy De Voogd (Naturalis Biodiversity Center), Gary Williams (California Academy of Science), Zac Forsman (Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology), Michel Hendrickx (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), David Paz (Louisiana State University)


Alder, J., Wood, L., 2004. MANAGING AND PROTECTING SEAMOUNTS ECOSYSTEMS, in: Seamounts: Biodiversity and Fisheries. pp. 67–74.

Danovaro, R., Gambi, C., Dell’Anno, A., Corinaldesi, C., Fraschetti, S., Vanreusel, A., Vincx, M., Gooday, A.J., 2008. Exponential Decline of Deep-Sea Ecosystem Functioning Linked to Benthic Biodiversity Loss. Curr. Biol. 18, 1–8. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2007.11.056

Gori, A., Orejas, C., Madurell, T., Bramanti, L., Martins, M., Quintanilla, E., Marti-Puig, P., Lo Iacono, C., Puig, P., Requena, S., Greenacre, M., Gili, J.M., A. Gori1, C.O.T.M.L.B.M.M.E.Q.P.M.-P.C.L.I.P.P.S.R.M.G. and J.M.G., 2013. Bathymetrical distribution and size structure of cold-water coral populations in the Cap de Creus and Lacaze-Duthiers canyons (northwestern Mediterranean). Biogeosciences 10, 2049–2060. doi:10.5194/bg-10-2049-2013

Ison, T., 2017. Socio-cultural and Economic Valuation of Seamount Biodiversity in the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Univ. Edinburgh. Master thesis.

Marti-Puig, P., Buglass, S., Arnés-Urgellés, C., Creemers, M., Raineault, N.A., Fisher, C., Watling, L., O’Hara, T., Reiswig, H., Rouse, G., Shank, T.M., Wicksten, M.K., Rowley, S., Cairns, S., Ott, B., Robin, L.F., Salinas-de-León, P., n.d. (In Prep) Characterizing invertebrate megafauna in seamounts and other deep-sea habitats: New species and records for the Galápagos Marine Reserve.

Staudigel, H., Koppers, A., Lavelle, J.W., Pitcher, T., Shank, T., 2010. Seamount Sciences: Quo Vadis? Oceanography 23, 212–213. doi:10.5670/oceanog.2010.72

Wessel, P., Sandwell, D., Kim, S.-S., 2010. The Global Seamount Census. Oceanography 23, 24–33. doi:10.5670/oceanog.2010.60

Esta página web utiliza cookies propias y de terceros que nos permite analizar la navegación de usuarios. This website uses its own and third party cookies that allows us to analyze users' browsing. Más información/More information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.