Mysterious double 'whirlpools' are popping up in the ocean

Scientists have spotted a bizarre phenomenon reeling through the southern seas: linked swirls of water that resemble giant whirlpools spinning in opposite directions.

Rotating masses of water called eddies are common in the ocean. The newly revealed pairs, however, churn through the water up to ten times faster than their single counterparts, and are connected underwater by a U-shaped vortex. What’s more, they might be able to slurp up tiny marine animals and ferry them great distances. Researchers are now trying to figure out how these maelstroms came to be and why they behave so weirdly.

Eddies, which can measure more than 60 miles across, are typically created by turbulence in larger ocean currents.

“When they reach a certain strength they spontaneously start meandering and breaking up into eddies,” says Chris Hughes, an oceanographer at University of Liverpool in England and one of the scientists behind the new discovery. Eddies play an important role in the ocean by mixing water from different areas, he says. They can stir up nutrients normally found in deeper waters and transport water across gyres, patterns of circular ocean currents that can be thousands of miles wide. This is essential for transporting heat from the equator up to the waters around the poles. “That really wouldn’t be possible without the eddies,” Hughes says.

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Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1978 and situated in the Pacific Ocean some 1,000 km from the South American continent, these 19 islands and the surrounding marine reserve are referred to as a unique ‘living museum and showcase of evolution’. Located at the confluence of three ocean currents, the Galápagos are a ‘melting pot’ of marine species, this dive features the playful Galapagos sea lions by Isla Campion (Champion Island).

(Image collect by Catlin Seaview Survey in partnership with Charles Darwin Foundation and Galapagos National Park via Google)

Raja Ampat is Indonesia’s most easterly province and has earned its reputation as the world epicentre of marine biodiversity. At Cape Kri the tremendous amount of fish life is dominated by dogtooth tuna, giant trevallies, and chevron barracuda. The coral growth here is equally fantastic, with numerous hard and soft varieties.

(Image collect by Catlin Seaview Survey via Google)

The whole 2 million square kilometre exclusive economic zone of the Cook Islands is a designated whale sanctuary. During May and October every year the Humpback Whales arrive in the Cook Islands. They are migrating north to South Pacific waters from their summer feeding grounds of Australia, New Zealand, and the cool Antarctic Ocean. They use these warmer waters to mate, give birth and to rest.

(Image collect by Catlin Seaview Survey via Google)

The USAT Liberty was a 120m long ex-American cargo ship which now rests just off a rocky Tulamben beach in the northeast of Bali. The Liberty was torpedoed by a Japanese sub in the Lombok Strait in 1942 but wasn't sunk, it made it to Tulamben where it remained beached until 1963. When Mt Agung erupted in 1963 the associated earth tremours pushed the vessel out into the sea where it rests today. The coral covered wreck is one of Bali's most popular dives and it provides habitat for all manner of marine creatures.

(Image collect by Catlin Seaview Survey via Google)

American Samoa is a string of seven remote islands in the South Pacific, 2,500 miles south of Hawaii. There are extensive coral reefs here, rich in marine life. This virtual dive, within the National Park of American Samoa, starts as a half-in / half-out and then dives underwater for a virtual tour of the reef.

(Image collect by Catlin Seaview Survey via Google)

Shelley Beach is a protected marine area (part of Cabbage Tree Bay) which was declared a "No Take" Aquatic Reserve in 2002. Since being listed as a protected area local scuba divers and snorklers say they are seeing an increase in marine creatures here - a great observation.

(Image collect by Catlin Seaview Survey via Google)

This sheltered reef near the island of Mayreau is in the Tobago Cay Marine Park (TCMP). The park was established in 1997 to preserve the reefs that serve as a foraging ground and refuge for reef fish and juvenile turtles. The reef here is unique because it grows along an underwater hot spring.

(Image collect by Catlin Seaview Survey via Google)

The Yongala Shipwreck is a 110m former steel passenger and freight steamer which sank in 1911 during a tropical cyclone with 124 passengers onboard. The wreck lies at a depth of 33 metres and is constantly included on 'top 10 lists' for best dives in the world. The site has a strong current running over it which attracts a lot of marine life.

(Image collect Catlin Seaview Survey via Google)

Spinner Dolphins are small dolphins famous for their spinning, acrobatic aerial displays. During the day these creatures rest in the shallow bays of Fernando de Noronha and then move into deeper waters around dusk to hunt.

(Image collect by Catlin Seaview Survey via Google)

The Devil's Crown is located off the northeast shore of Floreana Island, Galapagos.

(Image collect by Catlin Seaview Survey in partnership with Charles Darwin Foundation and Galapagos National Park via Google)

The Mary Celeste was a paddle steamer which sunk in 1864 after being used to run ammunitions and supplies to the Confederate forces during the American Civil War. The wreck sits in 55 feet of water and one of the huge paddle wheels is still clearly visible at the dive site.

(Image collect by Catlin Seaview Survey via Google)

On this virtual dive you can find a discarded boat which has sunk to the sand on the ocean floor. Over time marine larvae could potentially drift over from nearby reefs and eventually settle on the boat, turning this ocean pollution into an artifical reef.

(Image collect by Catlin Seaview Survey via Google)

Fernando de noronha has many blow holes like this one called "The Devils hole". When the tide is right, the blow hole releases air from the roof of a sub-surface cavernin a dramatic, explosive display. You can see the blow hole errupting in this virtual dive.

(Image collect by Catlin Seaview Survey via Google)

Pedras Secas is one of the iconic dive sites of Fernando de Noronha. It's an impressive dive site that attracts a lot of marine life. The volcanic rocks provide an arena-like formation that is surrounded by passages, holes, caverns, an iconic main arch and a 60 foot 'swim through' tunnel.

(Image collect by Catlin Seaview Survey via Google)

Pedras Secas is one of the iconic dive sites of Fernando de Noronha. It's an impressive dive site that attracts a lot of marine life. The volcanic rocks provide an arena-like formation that is surrounded by passages, holes, caverns, an iconic main arch and a 60 foot 'swim through' tunnel.

(Image collect by Catlin Seaview Survey via Google)

The southern-most breaking reef in Bermuda is not a coral or rock formation but made from fossilized prehistoric worms. The structure is incredibly strong and can easily withstand the strong winter storms. 

(Image collect by Catlin Seaview Survey via Google)

The Cod Hole was one of the first ever protected sites on the Great Barrier Reef thanks largely to the efforts of Ron and Valerie Taylor, who in the early 1980's witnessed the huge cod population decimated by overfishing. This reef attracts a large variety of marine life aside from the resident Potato Cods, including big Coral Trout, all varieties of shark, Minke Whales, dolphins and thousands of coral reef fish. See what else you can spot in this virtual dive on this truly world class dive site.

(Image collect Catlin Seaview Survey via Google)

Botany Bay was the site of Captain James Cook's first landing of the HMS Endeavour on the continent of Australia in 1770. They called the site "Stingray Bay" originally as the area was so full of the creatures. Bare Island is found on the northern edge of Botany Bay - while you won't find any stingrays on this virtual dive you might be able to spot a tiny, bright nudibranch.

(Image collect by Catlin Seaview Survey via Google)

Botany Bay was the site of Captain James Cook's first landing of the HMS Endeavour on the continent of Australia in 1770. They called the site "Stingray Bay" originally as the area was so full of the creatures. Bare Island is found on the northern edge of Botany Bay - while you won't find any stingrays on this virtual dive you might be able to spot a tiny, bright nudibranch.

(Image collect by Catlin Seaview Survey via Google)

Whale sharks, the world's largest living species of fish, can be found in the waters that surround Isla Contoy throughout the Mexican wet season (June - September). These huge sharks are incredibly docile and harmless, they congregate in the area to feed on plankton that blooms at this time of year.

(Imagery collect by Catlin Seaview Survey via Google)

Conception Island has historical significance as one of the first landfalls of Columbus in the New World. The uninhabited island is located on a platform that rises out of the deep ocean 15 miles east of Santa Maria, Long Island. Under the water, there is an abundance of healthy coral and marine life.

(Image collect by Catlin Seaview Survey via Google)

Roche Saint Nicholas lies at the feet of the iconic Oceanographic Museum of Monaco. The museum was established by Prince Albert I in 1910 and later managed by the most famous underwater explorer of them all, Jacques Yves Cousteau.

(Imagery collect by Catlin Seaview Survey in partnership with Oceanographic Museum of Monaco and Prince Albert II Foundation via Google)

In 2009 Jason deCaires Taylor began placing his pH neutral sculptures onto the seafloor of Isla Mujeres and Cancun which is now known as the Cancun Underwater Museum.

(Image collect by Catlin Seaview Survey via Google)

Found on the outer edge of Meemu Atoll, this large channel attracts an abundance of fish, including Oriental Sweetlips, Clown Triggerfish, and Longfin Bannerfish. The north section of Muli is a breeding ground for turtles, which can often be seen cruising in the current.

(Image collect by Catlin Seaview Survey via Google)

The Florida International University manages the Aquarius Reefbase which is a fantastic underwater habitat utilized by marine biologists and astronauts for research and training purposes. In August 2014 the Catlin Seaview Survey team visited Aquarius whilst surveying the reefs around the Florida Keys.

(Image collect by Catlin Seaview Survey via Google)

The Florida International University manages the Aquarius Reefbase which is a fantastic underwater habitat utilized by marine biologists and astronauts for research and training purposes. In August 2014 the Catlin Seaview Survey team visited Aquarius whilst surveying the reefs around the Florida Keys.

(Image collect by Catlin Seaview Survey via Google)

Anguilla is a small island nation in the Caribbean Sea, 10 miles north of Saint Martin. The Shoal Bay Harbour Reef System is one of seven marine parks in the country. Take a virtual dive amongst the numerous sea fans.

(Image collect by Catlin Seaview Survey via Google)

On the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1981 the Great Barrier Reef is an icon of the natural world. The area contains the world’s largest collection of coral reefs, with 400 types of coral, 1,500 species of fish and 4,000 types of mollusc. It also holds great scientific interest as the habitat of threatened species such as the dugong (‘sea cow’) and the large green turtle. This collection focuses on the reef around Heron Island, walk in from the shore, explore the reef and keep an eye out for some green turtles.

(Image collect by Catlin Seaview Survey via Google)

Dwarf Minke Whales travel through the Great Barrier Reef each winter where specialist dive operators and researchers wait to meet them. In 2014 the Catlin Seaview Survey team joined a Mike Ball expedition to track the whales.

(Image collect by Catlin Seaview Survey via Google)

Wilson Island is an important turtle and bird rookery fringed by a white coral beach and covered with pisonia forest. From November to March, the island is home to wedge-tailed shearwaters and green turtles; from June to September, humpback whales can be seen going to and from their winter feeding grounds.

(Image collect by Catlin Seaview Survey via Google)

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An eddy near South Africa photographed on December 26, 2011 by NASA's Terra satellite, its spiral shape highlighted by light blue plankton blooms. Eddies stir up nutrients from deeper waters, creating ideal conditions for plankton to prosper.

Mathematicians have proposed that eddies might be able to meet up and travel in pairs since the 1970s. And researchers have been able to create tiny versions of this phenomenon; you can even observe these vortices, which are shaped like the bottom half of a smoke ring, in a swimming pool. But until now, double eddies have never been seen in the wild. Hughes spotted one while examining satellite footage of the ocean’s surface from around the world.

“I happened to notice one little feature down in the Tasman Sea [between Australia and New Zealand] that was behaving very strangely compared to everywhere else,” Hughes says. “Almost all these eddies drift slowly westwards, but this little feature was going quickly eastwards. It turned out to be this half smoke ring.”

These smoke rings seem to be quite rare. Hughes and his colleague Peter Miller, of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, pored over 25 years’ worth of satellite imagery and identified just eight in the waters around Australia and one off the coast of South Africa. Eddies normally travel around one mile per day in these areas; the smoke rings covered five to 10 miles per day and lasted for about six months before splitting up.

Hughes thinks a smoke ring’s unusual speed and direction might be related to the balance between its two eddies. In each smoke ring, one eddy has a hole in the center like the one you might normally see in a whirlpool. The other has a bump of water in the middle and spins the opposite way. The dip or bump in a normal eddy creates a disturbance that pushes through the surrounding waters, constraining its speed. “If you have a pair of them together, that can cancel out,” Hughes says. “There’s no mass moving westwards like there is in a standard eddy.”

Smoke rings may be spawned when two eddies spinning in opposite directions smack into each other. Or in other cases, a single eddy may form near the coastline, where friction will slow some of the churned-up water until it begins to spin in the opposite direction. This seems to be what happens in the vicinity of the East Australian Current, although why smoke rings haven’t appeared in the many other places that have strong currents near the shore isn’t clear, Hughes says.

Aside from its cameo in Finding Nemo, the East Australian Current is famous for having different conditions than the surrounding water, including warmer temperatures. Eddies that form in that current are distinctive as well.

“If they pair up they’ll shoot across the whole of the Tasman Sea and also carry the same kinds of properties with them,” Hughes says. “You would get particular blobs of water where the biology and the conditions are totally different from the surrounding area.”

He believes the smoke rings might even capture tiny marine creatures and transport them far across the sea, while also attracting larger animals. “It’s quite possible there are shoals of particular types of fish following these eddies for their special conditions,” says Hughes, who published the findings December 4 in Geophysical Research Letters. “Fish would actually actively follow the eddies by choice because of what’s in them.”

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