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Ukrainian Teen's 'Monster' Sighting Leads To Unique Undersea Video


Elephant seals, which spend more than three-quarters of their lives at sea, are thought to be the deepest-diving pinnipeds in the ocean.
Elephant seals, which spend more than three-quarters of their lives at sea, are thought to be the deepest-diving pinnipeds in the ocean.
A Ukrainian teenager has pointed scientists half a world away to a unique bit of their own underwater footage that shows one of the sea's biggest predators in action nearly a kilometer under the surface.

Fourteen-year-old Kirill Dudko alerted researchers at the University of Victoria (UVic) who operate the Neptune Canada ocean-observatory network to his find in an e-mail asking what kind of "monster" he had seen in their live video feed.

They immediately checked the tape and found the lightning-quick January 12 feeding incident to which he was referring.

The resulting clip -- initially on Dudko's YouTube channel -- quickly went viral among marine biologists and other ocean watchers for the rarity of its contents: a female elephant seal slurping up an unsuspecting hagfish near the seafloor off the southwest coast of Canada.

Researchers at UVic called the "avid science student's" contribution a great example of "citizen science."

The live feed that caught Dudko's attention was from a camera 894 meters under the surface at a site off Vancouver Island called Barkley Canyon.

Dudko reportedly told them he's taken to "surf[ing] the seafloor" from his home in Donetsk, an eastern Ukrainian industrial hub, since becoming interested in marine biology months ago.

"Kirill wrote an e-mail to the address at the official site and asked the scientists what the animal was that had a hagfish for dinner and provided a link to the recordings on YouTube," the boy's mother, Svitlana, told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. "To our great surprise, we actually received an answer the next day. Experts at Neptune Canada also sent an inquiry to scientists in the U.S. Kirill was in touch with them for a week, and when it became clear what animal it was, he was immediately informed."

CBCNews also chronicled Dudko's key role in the exciting find:

Researcher Kim Juniper says an email from the teen in Donetsk, Ukraine, caused a flurry of excitement.

"Monday morning we had an email from him saying, ‘I saw something strange and weird. Some monster just ate a fish in front of me. What was it?' And that sent all of us into a bit of a flurry to back this up."

Juniper says it's the first time a seal has ever been recorded eating a hagfish, a creature so slimy other predators spit them out.

Kirill Dudko, 14, was watching a live stream of cameras on the ocean floor off Victoria from his home in the Ukraine. (CBC).

Dudko doesn't speak much English, and he was up past his bed time on a school night to explain the story with help from his mother Svetlana.

"I'm very proud of my son," she told CBC News.

In addition to the scientific community and casual wildlife fans, Dudko's sharp-eyed feat has also been picked up on social media by groups that range from educational innovators (@EducInnovations) to institutions hoping to encourage the study of Ukrainian as a second language in Canada (@ULEC_CIUS).

A congratulatory tweet from @MeganCytron asked: "This story makes me so happy. Shouldn't all children--really all people--be citizen scientists like Kirill Dudko[?]"

With obvious obstacles to the direct observation of such deep-diving predators, scientists have long relied on the stomach contents from dead animals to learn about their eating habits.

Elephant seals are thought to be the deepest-diving of the pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, and walruses). They dive to depths of around a kilometer and a half (one southern elephant seal was recorded venturing to nearly 2,400 meters) -- well into what's dubbed the ocean's "Midnight Zone" because of the absence of light -- and can hold their breath for more than an hour and a half.

They are probably best known to most people for the much bulkier males' signature proboscises and their titanic and bloody battles in the surf for breeding rights with females.

The prey in this case was a hagfish, a jawless fish that has been around in a virtually unchanged state for 300 million years. This fish is also notable for its defense mechanism, secreting prodigious amounts of foul slime that expands when it touches seawater. (Here's an explainer of hagfish slime at work against a shark.)

Dudko's discovery highlights the use of webcams to bring the animal kingdom into people's living rooms and the hold that such live feeds have on devoted segments of populations even on the other side of the globe.

Such feeds have long been employed to great effect by zoos and other more controlled environments.

But innovation and connectivity are revolutionizing humankind's ability to monitor events further outside its control. There are major technology-based networks to warn of possible tsunamis, to track the levels and effects of climate change, and even to follow individual animals (sharks, rays, and whales, for example).

The NEPTUNE network, located off North America's northwest coast, "gathers live data and video from the seafloor, making them freely available to the world, 24/7," in the words of the University of Victoria project's website.

Oceanographer John Delaney gave an explanatory TED Talk to describe his efforts as part of the National Science Foundation's Ocean Observatories Initiative team trying to build more deep-sea sensors to "turn our ocean into a global interactive lab." (Skip the first three minutes unless you're into enduring wisdom from 17th-century Asian poets.)

-- Andy Heil

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