By Jennifer Frazer / scientificamerican.com

In 2010, Japanese scientists from the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program’s Expedition 329 sailed into the South Pacific Gyre with a giant drill and a big question.

The gyre is a marine desert more barren than all but the aridest places on Earth. Ocean currents swirl around it, but within the gyre, the water stills and life struggles because few nutrients enter. Near the center is both the Oceanic Pole of Inaccessibility (made famous by H.P. Lovecraft as the home of the be-tentacled Cthulhu) and the South Pacific garbage patch.  At times the closest people are astronauts passing above on the International Space Station.

The sea here is so miserly that it takes one million years for a meter of marine “snow”—corpses, poo and dust—to accumulate on the bottom. The tale of all that time can total as little as 10 centimeters. It is the least productive patch of water on the planet.

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