Dandelion siphonophore, 2016 Deepwater Exploration of the Marianas.
NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration; Gif by Marisa Gertz for TIME
June 3, 2016 9:10 AM EDT

The more than 95,000 square miles that make up the Mariana Archipelago are a U.S. national treasure protected by the federal government. But scientists know very little about what lurks beneath the ocean‘s surface.

Now, an expedition of researchers sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is exploring the area and uncovering new species across a wide variety of underwater habitats during a 69-day trip that ends next month. Researchers say that exploring the unique region will help scientists understand how habitats function deep below the ocean’s surface. The region includes reef habitats, deep trench areas with some of the deepest water levels on the planet and underwater mud volcanoes that support unique life forms.

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Write to Justin Worland at justin.worland@time.com.

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