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Continental Shelf

If you imagine the continents as large slabs of stone floating on the Earth’s molten mantle, then the continental shelf is the relatively flat edge of those slabs, mostly hidden beneath the ocean. Although depths of the shelf change from place to place, this area is shallow when compared to the open sea. At the edge of the shelf is a grade where sediment and debris from above slide toward the ocean bottom and create the steeper continental slope. The heaviest and densest debris accumulates at the bottom of the slope where it meets the abyssal plain. This accumulation forms massive underwater hills known as the continental rise. All together, the continental shelf, continental slope and continental rise are referred to as the continental margin which makes up just over a quarter of all oceanic area.

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Slideshow: Continental Shelf

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    The Nurse Shark is a bottom-dwelling fish found along the continental shelf in mostly tropical and subtropical waters. (NOAA photo)

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    Upwelling along the continental shelf near Oregon lifts nutrients that settle on the muddy bottom into the upper levels of the ocean. (NOAA photo)

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    A closeup of the blow hole on a Humpback Whale. This huge mammals may migrate along the edge of the continental shelf. (NOAA photo)

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    Pacific White-Sided Dolphiins may hunt along the continental shelf where food is plentiful. (NOAA photo)

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    The muddy bottom of the shelf is home to all kinds of odd-looking animals, including this elegant sea star. (NOAA photo)