The top of a craggy pinnacle about 6 feet tall supports a dense community of orange, suspension-feeding sea stars.
NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2017

Despite the Gulf’s proximity to land, much of it is still unexplored.  

By Marisa Spyker

When you dip your toes into the warm water on a picture-perfect Gulf Coast beach, chances are you’re not thinking of the tons of aquatic curiosities lurking far beneath its surface. These photos might change your mind.

The images were taken during an NOAA expedition aboard the Okeanos Explorer—the only federally funded U.S. ship dedicated to deep ocean exploration—which set out in late November to explore and document deep-water regions of the Gulf. Their research, among other things, aims to identify vulnerable marine habitats and potential areas for protection.

Related: Meet Our 2017 Ocean Heroes:

What they saw and shared is nothing short of stunning—beautiful sea stars, colorful fish, and, well, let’s just say creatures that are quite different than what we're used to seeing closer to the surface.

Scroll on to see more:

An olive-colored empty egg case of a cartilaginous fish--either a skate, ray, or shark--attached to a vibrant type of coral.
NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2017
A colonial tuscarorid phaeodarean feeding on a filament of marine snow.
NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2017
A cute creature with a cuter name: Dumbo octopus
NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2017
A remotely operated vehicle explores a shipwreck 2,300 feet deep.
NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2017
An unusual jellyfish-like ctenophore swimming above the seafloor.
NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2017
A particularly grumpy-looking ophidiiform cusk eel encountered at a depth of 1,585 meters (5,200 feet).
NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2017
A serpent star wraps itself around a type of octocoral
NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2017
A Darwin’s slimehead (yes, that's its name!) hangs out a few meters off the bottom.
NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2017