See a wild underwater 'benthic tornado' whirl across the sea floor

Well that was unexpected.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
2 min read
Enlarge Image

This "benthic tornado" looked like an ocean-going dust devil.

Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

Here's the weather forecast for the Coral Sea Marine Park seafloor off the coast of Australia: wet with a chance of tornadoes.

Researchers following a Schmidt Ocean Institute ROV (remotely operated vehicle) dive near Queensland spotted a wild event when a tornado-like formation appeared on camera during a livestream on Thursday.

The original focus of marine geologist Robin Beaman's commentary was on corals and a creature called a "sea pen," but it quickly shifted to fascination and wonder at the appearance of a curved and rotating tornado-like formation. The researchers on the video called it "amazing," "completely weird" and "really unusual."

Beaman said the phenomenon reminded him of a "benthic storm," waves that travel under the surface and cause turbulence near the ocean bottom. The swirling formation soon dissipated, but left a short trail along the sea floor. The cause of the small "benthic tornado" seems to be a mystery.

You can watch the full replay of the livestream, or just start with the appearance of the underwater whirlwind:

Schmidt Ocean expeditions have been giving scientists and fans of all things marine a window into fascinating, rarely seen worlds. The views have included wild geological formations and a bizarre string-like siphonophore.

The dive was part of a larger effort to study a "virtually unmapped and mostly unexplored" area called the Queensland Plateau. 

"The acquisition of baseline mapping and underwater vision data provides a unique window into both the geological past and the present-day condition of mesophotic (twilight zone) and deeper cold-water coral ecosystems, allowing for marine park staff to manage and adapt policies for the future," Schmidt Ocean said in describing the mission.

The "benthic tornado" is an excellent example of the enigmas that can be found lurking in the deep.

Mold Pigs, a Hairy Snail and Other Cool Things Trapped in Amber

See all photos