Press release

New discoveries on seafloor – AWI scientists name previously unknown underwater mountains after Nelson Mandela and a figure out of the novel “The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear”

[19. June 2014] 

Bremerhaven, 19 June 2014. As of today, the names of two previously unknown underwater mountains will appear on the nautical charts of the South Atlantic and the Weddell Sea: “Madiba Seamount” and “Nachtigaller Shoal”. In selecting the names at its conference in Monaco this year, the Sub-Committee on Undersea Feature Names (SCUFN) followed the proposals of two scientists at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research. They had discovered the mountains on Polarstern expeditions to Antarctica last year. The designation signifies official exploration of a further section of the seafloor.

“Up to now, less than ten percent of the underwater landscape of our oceans has been explored and given a name. If you leave the normal sea routes, you can definitely make new discoveries,” says Jan Erik Arndt from the Alfred Wegener Institute.

During an expedition to the southern Indian Ocean last November the bathymetric expert had the good fortune of discovering a previously unknown seamount. On its way from Cape Town to the Southern ocean AWI’s research icebreaker Polarstern passed by the tip of an underwater mountain. “If the multibeam echo sounder had only brushed past the edge of the seamount, it might have remained undiscovered,” recounts Jan Erik Arndt. The peak rises 1,920 metres above the seafloor and is thus, in terms of its height, comparable with mountains in the Alps – though its highest point is around 3,500 metres below sea level.

To find a suitable name for the seamount, Jan Erik Arndt set up a box on the Polarstern. Every member of the expedition was thus able to submit a suggestion for the name anonymously. “Nelson Mandela died during our expedition and when his clan name and nickname, Madiba, was submitted as a suggestion, we quickly agreed to honour him with this new discovery. After all, our expedition started and ended in South Africa,” explains the bathymetric expert.

Back in February last year Boris Dorschel, head of Bathymetry at the Alfred Wegener Institute, investigated a previously unknown underwater mountain that extended up to slightly below the surface of the sea. “At its shallowest point the mountain was situated only 16 metres below sea level and thus slightly less than five metres under the keel of the Polarstern. If the elevation had been marked on a nautical chart, we would have avoided this shallow,” says Boris Dorschel. All the more important to map and name the new discovery.

“Due to the ice cover, we had to repeatedly change our course during the investigation. This led to a record that reminded me of the character Prof. Dr. Abdul Nachtigaller in the novel The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear”, recounts Boris Dorschel. That is why the working title “Nachtigaller Hill” was accepted very quickly. “The name appeared to be very fitting to us since Prof. Dr. Nachtigaller devotes his life to researching unsolved mysteries and hostile environments,” explained Boris Dorschel with a twinkle in his eye and submitted his suggestion for the name.

Beforehand, however, he had contacted “Captain Bluebear” author Walter Moers. “I wanted to make sure that he didn’t have anything against our naming a mountain in the ocean in Antarctica after one of his novel characters,” says the bathymetric expert. Initially the author thought the query was a joke. Convinced of the seriousness of the suggestion, the idea appealed to him more and more and he agreed to it. “I had no idea that whole mountains may still be undiscovered nowadays. The fact that the discovery took place in the darkness of Antarctic waters probably would have delighted Nachtigaller, the Zamonian pioneer of darkness research, very much,” says Walter Moers.

The AWI scientists submitted both names, “Madiba Seamount” and “Nachtigaller Hill”, to the international SCUFN committee (Sub-Committee on Undersea Feature Names) for a vote. The committee meets once a year to officially name newly discovered geographic structures on the seafloor. This year there are 102 proposed names for the members to discuss in Monaco from 16 to 20 June. The members attach special importance to whether the suggested names are suitable and the underwater structures are in fact still unknown and unnamed. In this way SCUFN reduces possible uncontrolled proliferation in the designation of structures on the seafloor.

“In the past it was frequently the case that two seamounts had the same name or a deep-sea trench had two different designations. Especially in scientific publications it may be confusing if two studies talk about the same structure, but this is not immediately clear because of the different names,” explains Prof. Hans Werner Schenke, geo-scientist at the Alfred Wegener Institute and SCUFN chairman.

This morning the committee quickly decided in favour of the suggestion Madiba Seamount and welcomed in particular the fact that the selection of the clan name not only represents an honour for Nelson Mandela himself, but also for his tribe. The terminological classification of Nachtigaller Hill as a hill, on the other hand, led to discussions. “Since this underwater mountain is located just below the sea surface, we decided to classify it as a shoal, i.e. a shallow that represents a hazard for shipping traffic,” explains Prof. Hans Werner Schenke.

Thus the two underwater mountains, “Madiba Seamount” and “Nachtigaller Shoal”, join a list of geographic designations on which scientists of the Alfred Wegener Institute have left their mark on their research voyages, such as “Polarstern Plateau” and “Alfred Wegener Canyon”.




Bathymetry: In bathymetry scientists survey the topographic shape of the seafloor. Using the data they obtain, it is possible, for instance, to draw up depth profiles for nautical charts.

Seamount: A seamount is a distinct elevation that rises more than 1,000 metres from the surrounding relief. At the same time it should have approximately the same dimensions in all directions.

Hill: A hill is a distinct elevation that rises less than 1,000 metres from the surrounding relief. At the same time the shape is usually irregular.

Shoal: Shoal refers to a shallow. When reference is made to a shoal in connection with a seamount, it designates an elevation near the surface that may pose a hazard for shipping traffic.


Note to editors:

Watch on underwater animation of Nachtigaller Shoal:

The names of the new underwater mountains appear in the SCUFN Gazetteer: 

Together with fellow scientists Boris Dorschel publishes a scientific paper on the biological and geological features of Nachtigaller Shoal. The study is published in Biogeosciences:  

Your contact person is Boris Dorschel (Tel.: 0471 4831 1222, E-Mail: Boris.Dorschel(at), as well as Kristina Baer, Dept. of Communications and Media Relations (tel.: 0049 471 4831-2139; e-mail: medien(at)

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The Alfred Wegener Institute conducts research in the Arctic, Antarctic and oceans of the high and mid-latitudes. It coordinates polar research in Germany and provides major infrastructure to the international scientific community, such as the research icebreaker Polarstern and stations in the Arctic and Antarctica. The Alfred Wegener Institute is one of the 18 research centres of the Helmholtz Association, the largest scientific organisation in Germany.


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Das Institut

Das Alfred-Wegener-Institut forscht in den Polarregionen und Ozeanen der mittleren und hohen Breiten. Als eines von 19 Forschungszentren der Helmholtz-Gemeinschaft koordiniert es Deutschlands Polarforschung und stellt Schiffe wie den Forschungseisbrecher Polarstern und Stationen für die internationale Wissenschaft zur Verfügung.