Teen marine-biology buff makes discovery via undersea webcam off B.C. coast

Nice hat, buddy. A bull elephant seal wears a tracking tag glued to its fur. (LiveScience)A Ukrainian teenager is the toast of marine researchers half a world away after apparently witnessing something scientists have never seen — an elephant seal devouring a slimy hagfish almost 3,000 feet below the surface of the ocean.

Kirill Dudko, a 14-year-old deep-sea biology nut, lives in the city of Donetsk. He was monitoring a live stream of undersea cameras when he spotted the seal in Barkley Canyon, off the west coast of Vancouver Island, making a meal of the unappetizing hagfish. It's thought to be shunned by predators because of the slimy mucus they exude. The fish, sometimes called slime eels, have existed largely unchanged for 300 million years.

But Dudko spotted the nose of an elephant seal slurping up the hagfish like a fugitive piece of fettuccine.

In a YouTube video of the Jan. 12 incident, Steven Mihaly, a staff scientist with Ocean Networks Canada, said the images confirmed for the first time speculation on how deep an elephant seal could dive.

Dudko emailed Neptune Canada, which links the 800-kilometre network of cameras and instruments to the Internet for Ocean Networks, based at the University of Victoria.

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“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," said associate director Kim Juniper.

“It was like a horror film,” the biology enthusiast wrote in his email, according to the Victoria Times Colonist. “This creature wasn’t like a fish and I realized it was a mammal because of the nose and moustache.”

In a separate email to the Times Colonist, Dudko said he was puzzled because he didn't think any mammal except a whale could dive so deep.

In an interview with CBC News, Kiril's mother, Svetlana, said she was very proud of her son.

The Twitterverse also showered praise on the young man:

Scientists were impressed with Dudko's observation skills.

“He was clever enough to know he had seen something unusual,” Juniper told the Times Colonist, adding the Neptune program encourages citizen scientists to sift through the massive amounts of data collected by the network.

“But we didn’t expect that a 14-year-old would be making a discovery like this on his own."

Elephant seals are the only known seals to dive so deep, he added. Although GPS transmitters have recorded deep dives, the video is the first visual evidence of how they spend their time underwater.

Hagfish have been found in the bellies of dead elephant seals before, said Juniper, but it wasn't known how the seals can eat them without gagging — until now.

“Now we know she didn’t bite or chew, she inhaled it,” Juniper told the Times Colonist. “She created a low-pressure vacuum around her mouth.”

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For Dudko, the experience has reinforced his hope of becoming a marine biologist, the Times Colonist said.

“Biology is my favourite subject in school and it would be cool if my favourite hobby in the future will become my profession,” he said via email.

“I spend a lot of time watching the Neptune video feeds because I think that the underwater world keeps so many secrets and now it is possible for me to observe the life of its inhabitants online. It is really exciting.”