What is this weird golden orb from the seafloor?

Earth’s oceans are mysterious. And a recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expedition found an intriguing mystery in the Gulf of Alaska. The NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer discovered something strange on the ocean bottom on August 30, 2023. Some media have since dubbed it the “golden orb.” The small dome-shaped gold-colored object has puzzled both scientists and the public. What is it? Scientists still don’t know for sure. But they’ve now determined that it’s biological in origin.

NOAA first announced the discovery on September 7.

Golden orb: Gold-colored, roundish object with layers and a large dome in the center, held in a gloved hand.
View larger. | The NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer retrieved this “golden orb” from the seafloor in the Gulf of Alaska on August 30, 2023. Scientists still aren’t sure what it is. But they say it’s biological in origin. Image via NOAA Ocean Exploration/ Seascape Alaska.

How did they find the golden orb?

On August 30, 2023, NOAA was using remotely operated vehicles to explore an underwater seamount in the Gulf of Alaska. They were operating as part of the Seascape Alaska 5 expedition, whose overall goal is the study of unexplored and poorly understood deepwater areas off the shores of Alaska. On the ocean surface, NOAA personnel were on the NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer.

Then – about two miles (3,300 meters) deep, on the ocean bottom, amidst some of the usual white sponges – one of the underwater vehicles came across something odd.

It was small, about four inches (10 cm) across. And it was dome-shaped. It was also smooth and exquisitely golden in color. It was firmly attached to a rock. There was a hole or tear near its bottom. And it appeared to be the same color inside as outside.

The scientists hadn’t seen anything like it before. Media dubbed it the “golden orb” or “golden egg.” Initial theories included a dead sponge attachment, coral or an egg casing.

Golden object is biological in origin

The scientists say they still don’t know exactly what the object is.

But they say they’ve determined it is biological in origin. NOAA Ocean Exploration’s Sam Candio was the expedition coordinator. He described the discovery in a NOAA blog post, saying:

Isn’t the deep sea so delightfully strange? While we were able to collect the ‘golden orb’ and bring it onto the ship, we still are not able to identify it beyond the fact that it is biological in origin.

We likely won’t learn more until we are able to get it into a laboratory setting where we can continue to pull from the collective expertise of the scientific community with more sophisticated tools than we are able to maintain on the ship.

While somewhat humbling to be stumped by this finding, it serves as a reminder of how little we know about our own planet and how much is left to learn and appreciate about our ocean.

Gold-colored domed object emerging from rough gray rocks with squashy ocean life, maybe sponges, nearby.
View larger. | This is the “golden orb” as first discovered on August 30, 2023, tightly attached to a rock at a depth of about 2 miles (3,300 meters). Image via NOAA Ocean Exploration/ Seascape Alaska.

A new ocean species?

The scientists are still debating if the golden orb is a known species or a new species. It could also be something from an unknown life stage of an existing species. With this in mind, Candio said it’s an important finding, especially if it is a new species not seen before:

New species have the potential to reveal new sources for medical therapies and vaccines, food, energy and other societal benefits and knowledge. Collectively, the data and information gathered during this expedition will help us close gaps in our understanding of this part of the planet, so we can better manage and protect it.

This latest discovery is certainly a weird one. And it won’t be the last. Remember when other NOAA scientists found those unusual long lines of holes in the seabed in the Atlantic Ocean last year?

Just as in outer space, the ocean depths can hold many surprises.

What do you think the “golden orb” is? Let us know in the comments!

Bottom line: On August 30, 2023, scientists retrieved a weird object from the Gulf of Alaska. Dubbed the “golden orb,” it’s still a mystery. But now we know it’s biological in origin.


Read more: Weird ocean holes are an unsolved mystery

September 25, 2023

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