25 Deep-Sea Creatures That Will Creep You Out

These predators from the depths of the Gulf of Mexico range from the astonishing to the macabre.


This deep-sea gallery contains images that some might find disturbing. The creatures in it may look like visions stolen from nightmares of the demented, but to be sure, all exist on planet earth. Animals from the eerie to the ethereal in appearance live in a cool, dark world as alien to us as the surface of Venus. Yet it is filled with life, and finding out and cataloging “what’s down there” in the black depths of the Gulf of Mexico is one of the missions of the consortium known as Deep Pelagic Nekton Dynamics of the Gulf of Mexico (DEEPEND).

These (thankfully) generally small creatures were collected on cruises that are part of DEEPEND’s multi-year program to sample the water column of the Gulf, led by Dr. Tracey Sutton, Ph.D., of Nova Southeastern University in Dania Beach, Florida. He points out how little is still known about this part of the earth where the biodiversity is staggering. Here, Sutton and colleagues share a rare look at some of that deepwater life, with macro close-ups of creatures they’ve collected — often from water thousands of feet deep — and photographed by Danté Fenolio, Ph.D., with the San Antonio Zoo.


A deep-sea monster, the fangtooth

Fangtooth, Anoplogaster cornuta

It’s a predator every bit as voracious as it looks. Found in depths from 1,500 to more than 6,000 feet, this mini monster reaches about 5 inches. Danté Fenolio / DEEPEND
A deep-sea monster, the fangtooth

Fangtooth, Anoplogaster cornuta

Nightmare vision: The savage head of the little fangtooth. Danté Fenolio / DEEPEND


A deep-sea monster, the tripodfish

Deep-Sea Tripodfish, Ipnops murrayi

Found in the Atlantic and Indian oceans at depths ranging from nearly 6,000 feet to well over 11,000 feet (more than 2 miles down), the tripodfish reaches about 5 inches. Free-swimming as juveniles, they become benthic — living on the bottom — as adults. Danté Fenolio / DEEPEND


A deep-sea monster, the anglerfish

Larval Female Anglerfish, family Linophrynidae

Anglerfish are found in all warm oceans and reach about 6 inches in length. They live in water from 1,500 to 6.500 feet and are the dominant predators below 3,000 feet. Danté Fenolio / DEEPEND


A deep-sea flyingfish
Not all the creatures collected on these deep-sea cruises are from the deep, nor are all frightening to see. This tiny larval flyingfish (species undetermined) is yellowish to better hide in the sargassum weed at the surface, where this specimen was collected. Danté Fenolio / DEEPEND


A deep-sea monster, a squid from the abyss

Deep-Sea Squid, Discoteuthis discus

Precious little is know of this remarkable animal, being extremely rare, and so far only observed in juvenile form (less than 2 inches), so nothing is known of the adult form. Danté Fenolio / DEEPEND


A deep-sea monster, a larval flounder

Flounder (larva), family Bothidae

This could be any of many species of left-eyed flounders found in all but polar oceans. The transparent larvae occur in water less than 350 feet deep. Danté Fenolio / DEEPEND


A deep-sea monster, the whalefish

Whalefish, Cetomimus sp.

Without a size reference, this might pass for a fish 6 feet long but the whalefish doesn’t exceed 6 inches. It’s bathypelagic, living in depths of nearly 3,500 to more than 13,000 feet. To date, only females have been collected. Danté Fenolio / DEEPEND


A deep-sea monster, the hatchetfish

Lovely Hatchetfish, Argyropelecus aculeatus

If these hatchetfish are lovely, I’m not sure I’d want to see other species in this genus. Fortunately, they reach only 3 inches in length. Lovely hatchetfish live in the dark depths of the ocean, to more than 3,000 feet, but ascend nightly to within a few hundred feet of the surface to feed on plankton, descending at the first hints of daylight. Danté Fenolio / DEEPEND


A deep-sea monster, the frogfish

Frogfish, Antennarius sp.

This composite photo shows the frogfish in three developmental stages: larval, juvenile and adult. Frogfishes are small predators of shallow waters near shore where adults sit on hard structure to ambush prey, but the juveniles are pelagic and drift offshore until they become adults. Frogfish are found in the western tropical Atlantic and seldom exceed 6 inches. Danté Fenolio / DEEPEND


A deep-sea monster, the dragonfish

Loosejaw Dragonfish, Photostomias guernei

Found in both the Atlantic and Pacific, this species of dragonfish lives in 350 to 5,000 feet where it feeds primarily on large pelagic shrimp.The fearsome beast grows to 6 inches. Danté Fenolio / DEEPEND


A deep-sea monster, the cockeyed squid

Cockeyed Squid, Histoteuthis corona

A left eye twice the diameter of the right accounts for this creature’s name. Slightly larger than many inhabitants of the deepwater biosphere, this squid may reach about 8 inches. Its body is covered in photophores — tiny structures that emit light, so in the blackness of 1,600 to 6,500 feet where the cockeyed squid lives, it appears covered with luminous spots. Danté Fenolio / DEEPEND


A deep-sea monster, the batfish

Batfish (juvenile), family Ogcocephalidae

Batfishes, members of the anglerfishes order, live on the bottom as adults, where they “walk” on their arm-like pectoral fins. They grow to 15 inches in length, are found in all tropical and temperate seas in 100 to more than 4,000 feet. Danté Fenolio / DEEPEND


A deep-sea monster, the tubeshoulder

Tubeshoulder, Mentodus facilis

The 4 1/2-inch tubeshoulder, found in all but polar seas (from 2,000 to 6,500 feet) has a sac behind the gill cover that ejects luminescent liquid. Scientists speculate this may serve to startle (or perhaps confuse) predators. Danté Fenolio / DEEPEND


A deep-sea monster, the anglerfish with its own fishing rod

Deep-Sea Anglerfish, Gigantactis gargantua

This species of deep-sea anglerfish boasts its own fishing lure at the end of a length of “line” that exceeds the length of the fish. This composite photo shows the anglerfish with its lure extended and a closeup of that lure. At bottom right is a closeup of the head of the fish. These guys can reach 16 inches, larger than most bathypelagic predators. They’re known from all warm oceans in depths of 1,600 to 5,000 feet. Apparently only the females are equipped with the gear to live up their names. Danté Fenolio / DEEPEND


A deep-sea monster, the pearlfish

Pearlfish (larva), Carapus bermudensis

Suggestion: Don’t hope to be a pearlfish in the next life unless you like tight, dark places. Adults live in the anus of sea cucumbers by day, coming out to forage after dark. This species is found in the western tropical Atlantic; its body will fill out after the larval stage. Danté Fenolio / DEEPEND


A deep-sea monster, the ribbon-sawtail dragonfish

Ribbon-Sawtail Dragonfish, Idiacanthus fasciola

Be glad you’re not a lanternfish, for that’s what these nightmarish predators feed on at night. By day, ribbon-sawtail dragonfish dwell in depths up to 2,600 feet; by night they ascend near the surface to hunt. They may reach nearly 20 inches in length. Danté Fenolio / DEEPEND


A deep-sea monster, juvenile squirrelfish

Squirrelfish (juvenile), family Holocentridae

Squirrelfishes are common in all warm oceans, as adults living within shallow coral reefs and venturing out to look for food at night. Juveniles like this float about the open ocean. Danté Fenolio / DEEPEND


A deep-sea surprise -- a larval lobster

Lobster (larva), order Decapoda

Lobster need little description; we’ve all seen a lobster, in photos if not in fact. What most of us haven’t seen is the striking ghostly form of a tiny larval lobster, recently hatched. Like many nearshore bottom dwellers, lobster begin life as free-swimming larvae in the upper layers of the open ocean, dispersing their populations. Danté Fenolio / DEEPEND


A deep-sea monster, the snaggletooth dragonfish

Snaggletooth Dragonfish, Astronesthes sp.

There certainly isn’t a lot known of this 4-inch fish: It’s a new species, first discovered during a recent DEEPEND sampling cruise in the Gulf of Mexico. Danté Fenolio / DEEPEND


A deep-sea bullseye fish

Longfinned Bullseye (juvenile), Cookelus japonicus

Another species that lives near bottom in moderately deep waters but as juveniles are free-swimming pelagics. The coloration exhibited here will change in adulthood to a solid, brilliant red body and red/purple fins. Adults may exceed 2 feet in length. Danté Fenolio / DEEPEND


A deep-sea monster, Joubin's squid

Joubin’s Squid, Joubiniteuthis portieri

This tiny squid (up to 3 1/2 inches) is very rare and little is known about its life history, though it seems to be widely distributed. Danté Fenolio / DEEPEND


A deep-sea monster, the black warrior

Black Warrior, Bathylaco nigricans

Although found in both the warm Atlantic and Indian oceans, the black warrior remains mostly a mystery to scientists. It is thought to reach a length of 14 inches and live in depths approaching 15,000 feet. Danté Fenolio / DEEPEND


A deep-sea monster, the longwing spinyfin

Longwing Spinyfin, Diretmoides pauciradiatus

Longwing spinyfins are benthopelagic, as adults feeding at varying depths in the water column from the surface to 2,000 feet down. They are planktivores (feeding on plankton). Danté Fenolio / DEEPEND


A deep-sea monster, a squid from the abyss

Deep-Sea Squid, Bathyteuthis sp.

This little fellow is hard to come by, so very little is really known of the species, believed to grow to a few inches and inhabit depths of 2,300 to 6,500 feet. Danté Fenolio / DEEPEND


A deep-sea monster, the threadfin dragonfish

Threadfin dragonfish, Echiostoma barbatum

Yet another species of the fearsome dragonfishes, the threadfin is relatively large, growing to 15 inches. At times it may rise to within 100 feet of the surface, but is known to live at least as deep as 13,800 feet. It feeds on pelagic fishes and shrimps. Danté Fenolio / DEEPEND


A deep-sea monster, the threadfin dragonfish

Threadfin dragonfish, Echiostoma barbatum

The frightening visage of a threadfin dragonfish. Like many abyssal predators, it has a photophoric spot that emits light, a dangling “fishing lure” to attract prey, and the teeth to hold onto that prey. Danté Fenolio / DEEPEND