Anne McIroy - December 15, 2005 00:00 EST

Beneath the ice of the western Arctic Ocean live bright pink octopuses with fins that flap like Dumbo's ears as they swim through the frigid water.

The Canadian Arctic octopus is the most northerly ever discovered, and it was captured last summer during a research cruise that was part of a $1-billion (U.S.), 10-year census of the creatures that live in the Earth's oceans.

"Its fins flap slowly when it swims. It looks like Dumbo," said Ron O'Dor, an expert in octopuses and squid from Halifax's Dalhousie University and the chief scientist in charge of producing the first marine-life census of the planet by 2010.

Dumbo, the cartoon elephant, used his giant ears to fly, but dozens of even stranger, real-life animals have been discovered in the first five years of the project, which involves 1,700 experts from 73 countries.

The scientists have conducted expeditions to previously unexplored deep sea vents, underwater mountains, coral reefs and to the Arctic, where they say they are in a race against time to document marine life because global warming may lead to the extinction of many northern species.

Dr. O'Dor, who took part in one of the Arctic cruises this summer, said he didn't expect to see an octopus so close to the North Pole.

He was on board an icebreaker, watching the video being shot by a remotely operated vehicle in the water 2,000 metres below, when he spied an undulating pink form.

This kind of webbed octopus has been found in many other parts of the world, but never this far north. At 2,000 metres beneath the surface, the temperature is the same pretty much everywhere -- about 4 degrees. While he only saw one -- and it wasn't easy to catch -- Dr. O'Dor is convinced there are many pink octopuses beneath the ice.

This is the first time scientists have captured an Arctic octopus, which weighed about a kilogram, and the first time they had extensive video of its behaviour.

But the octopus was only one of many firsts in an ambitious project that aims to produce a detailed picture of life beneath the waves. Among the other finds reported in this year's annual report:

Tiny carnivorous sponges. Most sponges filter small particles from the water. These ones eat like Cookie Monster on Sesame Street.

Living, microscopic soccer balls. Single-cell animals that use grains of sand to construct delicate shells that look like soccer balls.

A species of colonial jellyfish, which looks like the tail of an exotic kite, that can stretch up to three metres long.

A tsunami dead zone. Marine biologists saw no evidence of large animals during an 11-hour dive near the epicentre of the earthquake that caused the tsunami in December, 2004. They said the absence of life was "unprecedented in 25 years of deep-sea sampling."

As part of the marine census, a Canadian project, run by former federal scientist David Welch, has attached almond-sized tags to 2,700 salmon. An underwater system tracks where they go once they leave the rivers where they were born and head into the open ocean.

Researchers have also attached electronic tags to 1,838 animals of 21 species, including sharks, birds, turtles, seals and sea lions. The tags send information to scientists via satellite each time an animal surfaces. This allowed scientists to follow a single bluefin tuna as it crossed the Pacific Ocean three times in 600 days. It travelled 40,000 kilometres.

"This is such an exciting program. We get to go to places no one has gone before, use equipment no one has ever used before, bring back animals no one has ever seen before," said Dr. O'Dor.

But capturing some animals, including the pink octopus, proved difficult. The operator of the remote underwater vehicle made several attempts to trap it with a transparent bowl and lid.

It was time for the slurp gun, a trumpet-shaped tube with a vacuum that sucks in marine life. The octopus was brought on board and put in a special tank.

But the researchers on board weren't sure what to do with it. Some worried it might be one of a very small number of Arctic octopuses and wanted to return it to the deep. Others wanted to pickle it.

"Museum people just like to put things in formaldehyde. They are never happy until it looks grey and is in a jar," said Dr. O'Dor.

The scientists decided to contact the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, which agreed to take the Arctic octopus.

But the story ended sadly, Dr. O'Dor said.

"Unfortunately it died in transit."