Despite having made well over 100 new-species discoveries so far, there are a few that still stand out for Williams—moments that typify the wonder of discovery itself, and that remind him of how much more there is to learn from Earth’s oceans.
“In the Solomon Islands,” he recalls, “there are these alcoves or caves, and during a night dive back in the ‘90s a wave surge came in and pushed me against the side of one. As that happened the whole thing just lit up with this flash of green, which was really startling and beautiful. It turned out there was a soft coral that was covering the walls; I collected it, and it turned out to be the first known soft coral to bioluminesce.”
Another surprise came from 1,200 feet below the Antarctic sea—an environment that’s “pitch black, freezing cold, and about which we know almost nothing.” From these depths came a bright orange, feathery palmate (or head) the size of a human palm, mounted atop a 12-foot-long stalk that Williams says “is probably able to sweep in the Antarctic’s bottom currents, where there’s no food except for the rain of dead plankton that comes from the surface.”
Today, that specimen sits atop Williams’ desk at the Academy—a reminder of how many unknown corals await discovery in the deep. In fact,” Williams adds, “there are probably more corals in the deep sea than in the shallow water. My research program really shifted from an all-shallow-water to a deep-water focus, because stuff’s coming from all over the world and nobody has a clue what it is—so I have to figure it out.”