The Deep Sea Mystery Circle – a love story

puffer fish crop circle

images courtesy Yoji Ookata and NHK

Introduced to life under the sea in high school through snorkeling, Yoji Ookata obtained his scuba license at the age of 21. At the same time, he went out and bought a brand new NIKONOS, a 35mm film camera specifically designed for underwater photography. He devoted all his spare time – aside from his day job – to perfecting his art of underwater photography. Then, at age 39, he finally made the transition. He quit his office job and became a freelance underwater photographer.

yoji ookata puffer fish

But even for a man who spent the last 50 years immersed in the underwater world of sea life, the ocean proved infinitely mysterious. While diving in the semi-tropical region of Amami Oshima, roughly 80 ft below sea level, Ookata spotted something he had never seen. And as it turned out, no one else had seen it before either.

amami oshima puffer fish

On the seabed a geometric, circular structure measuring roughly 6.5 ft in diameter had been precisely carved from sand. It consisted of multiple ridges, symmetrically jutting out from the center, and appeared to be the work of an underwater artist, carefully working with tools. For its resemblance to crop circles, Ookata dubbed his new finding a “mystery circle,” and enlisted some colleagues at NHK to help him investigate. In a television episode that aired last week titled “The Discovery of a Century: Deep Sea Mystery Circle,” the television crew revealed their findings and the unknown artist was unmasked.

puffer fish crop circle

puffer fish crop circle

puffer fish crop circles

Underwater cameras showed that the artist was a small puffer fish who, using only his flapping fin, tirelessly worked day and night to carve the circular ridges. The unlikely artist – best known in Japan as a delicacy, albeit a potentially poisonous one – even takes small shells, cracks them, and lines the inner grooves of his sculpture as if decorating his piece. Further observation revealed that this “mysterious circle” was not just there to make the ocean floor look pretty. Attracted by the grooves and ridges, female puffer fish would find their way along the dark seabed to the male puffer fish where they would mate and lay eggs in the center of the circle. In fact, the scientists observed that the more ridges the circle contained, the more likely it was that the female would mate with the male. The little sea shells weren’t just in vain either. The observers believe that they serve as vital nutrients to the eggs as they hatch, and to the newborns.

puffer fish

the artist at work

puffer fish crop circle

What was fascinating was that the fish’s sculpture played another role. Through experiments back at their lab, the scientists showed that the grooves and ridges of the sculpture helped neutralize currents, protecting the eggs from being tossed around and potentially exposing them to predators.

It was a true story of love, craftsmanship and the desire to pass on descendants.

puffer fish crop circle

click images to enlarge

puffer fish crop circle

UPDATE [Aug 26, 2013]

Video footage of the little artist at work recently surfaced. It was uploaded to YouTube by MarineStation Amami, a hotel and dive center that assisted Yoji Okata and NHK in producing the video segment that aired last year. Of note, watch at around 1:20 when the fish takes a small shell in his mouth and plants it in the sculpture. Scientists believe that the shells are filled with vital nutrients and this is the soon-to-be-father’s way of preparing nourishment for the babies.



  1. Is this for real?! Is there video of this somewhere??

    • @Holls – I haven’t found any clips online. But I watched the episode on TV and there was footage of the fish creating these ridges with its fin.

  2. I’m real easy with the concept of natural selection, but occasionally some selected behavior rattles my cage — this is one such example. OMG!

  3. wuaw!!! this is amazing!!!thank you for chering!!!

  4. Oh my God… that is amazing… and we’re supposed to be the superior species?

    pfft. these fish put us humans to shame.

  5. Unbelievable…Nature never ceases to amaze!

  6. It’s an interesting example of how something that is totally functional in purpose is seen as aesthetically pleasing by humans. It would be like if someone looked at the folds of a diaper and said “wow, how attractive! clearly this is meant to look pretty!”

  7. Form and function, you cannot separate the two.
    It is only miraculous to the person who cannot see past what they have learned throughout this life.
    Open up to the possibility of being your own teacher, imagine the possibilities.

  8. Discoveries like this prove God exists. Trillions of years of mutations can not produce these sculptures.

  9. Johnny, Can we publish this story in Asian Diver? Any way we can get in touch with Yoji or NHK for more photos?

  10. Truly Inspirational and beautiful… It made me think what better we can do to our life’s even in most challenging situations if a fish can do this kind of a thing we can do even better things too… amazing

  11. What an amazing discovery! Thank you so much for sharing! 🙂

    Puffer fish are so awesome ^_^

  12. Spectacular design and master. I hope no one catches and eats
    this guy! Aliens–take notice. I love it.

  13. I agree with Jerrett…I think most Humans will see this as “pretty or amazing” and it most definitely is, but the purpose is also amazing…to attract a mate and then they lay their eggs in the center of this intricate design. Evolution and learned behavior often go unnoticed while Humans continue their parasitic behavior of destroying the planet and every living organism. If only we could appreciate and protect other creatures and their abilities and stop wiping them clean off the face of this planet. After seeing this, should puffer fish not be put on the sushi menu?

  14. Putterfish ARE awesome. I sure would like to share this cool article on facebook, maybe you include that ability on your site?

  15. Absolutely beautiful. Just goes to show how intelligent animals are, people say art defines us as humans but these fish are creating art for the same reasons we do, to give beauty to others and to express themselves as individuals. Please don’t eat these artists.

  16. Wow. And no one ever noticed this until now? We live in such an awesome world, where they are still discovering new species every day and now this. I’ve always loved puffer fish. I call them the “dogs of the ocean.” So sweet and playful in your tank. I love how they beg for attention and food! 🙂

  17. Amazing!!! and man destroys by kiling for his consumption or for some type of pleasure.

  18. @Matt A fish made the sculpture, not god. And a fish is made up of billions of molecules designed and placed through genetic coding perfect over millions (not trillions) of years of evolution. So what’s your point?

  19. Should let some artists like morons that make piss christ or denigration of Mary on display feigning artistic expression and talent. God designed the fish, ask him james, cmon man your not Bond.

  20. Obviously this pattern has been shown to be for survival and not art. I have never seen something deemed a piece of art in nature that was not directly related to propagating the species. I do wonder, though, if this pattern has implications for land development in hurricane zones like Louisiana.

    Now to risk a good flogging from religious folks.

    Saying that because we humans deem something in nature to be aesthetically pleasing is proof of some higher power, is like saying that your neighbor bought that new sports car just so you could stare at it in his driveway. Sorry to burst everyone’s collective bubble, but we just don’t matter one bit to that puffer-fish.

  21. Me gusta mucho el sitio, pero desafortunadamente no hay opción de lenguaje para poder leer en ESPAÑOL toda su página, ojalá pongan esta opción que mucho se lo agradeceríamos los latinos hispanoparlantes.

  22. this is great! hugh curtler pointed us to this post! z

  23. Matt, you are absolutely correct – unlike James Bond who, like the pitifully shallow 007, can’t see the truth for the lies. Random evolution … I don’t think so.

  24. Hello Johnny… I would like to publish this story in the UK.. do you have Yoji’s email address??

    Thanks. Pete/England.

  25. The little puffer fish shows God’s hand in her design here. The lessons of generations of fish are perfected to enhance survival of the species, and incidentally produce signs that delight the eye of humans.

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