Deep-sea vol­cano a hotspot for mys­te­ri­ous life

Malta Independent - - EXCLUSIVE - Caleb Jones

The turquoise waters be­came darker and darker, and squig­gly glow-in-dark ma­rine crea­tures be­gan to glide past in the inky depths like ghosts.

The three-man sub­ma­rine went down, down, down into the abyss and drew within sight of some­thing no hu­man had ever laid eyes on: Cook seamount, a 13,000-foot ex­tinct vol­cano at the bot­tom of the sea.

Sci­en­tists aboard the ves­sel Pisces V vis­ited the vol­cano ear­lier this month to ex­am­ine its ge­o­log­i­cal fea­tures and its rich va­ri­ety of ma­rine life, and an As­so­ci­ated Press re­porter was given ex­clu­sive ac­cess to the dive. It was the first-ever ex­pe­di­tion to the Cook seamount by a manned sub­mersible.

Among other things, the re­searchers from the Univer­sity of Hawaii and the non­profit group Con­ser­va­tion In­ter­na­tional spot­ted such won­ders as a rare type of oc­to­pus with big fins that look like Dumbo’s ears, and a po­ten­tially new species of vi­o­let-hued co­ral they dubbed Pur­ple Haze.

Con­ser­va­tion In­ter­na­tional hopes to study 50 seamounts, or un­der­sea vol­ca­noes, over the next five years.

“We don’t know any­thing about the ocean floor,” said Peter Selig­mann, chair­man, CEO and co-founder of Con­ser­va­tion In­ter­na­tional. “What we know is that each one of those seamounts is a refuge for new species, but we don’t know what they are. We don’t know how they’ve evolved. We don’t know what lessons they have for us.”

Dur­ing the Sept. 6 dive, the sub­ma­rine splashed into the wa­ter, and as it dove, the only sounds were ra­dio com­mu­ni­ca­tions from the sur­face, the hum of an air scrub­ber that re­moves car­bon diox­ide from the pas­sen­ger cham­ber, and the voices of the crew. The thick, hot trop­i­cal air in­side the steel sphere be­came cooler and drier as the sub­ma­rine de­scended.

“We don’t know what we’re go­ing to find,” said Con­ser­va­tion In­ter­na­tional’s Greg Stone, a ma­rine bi­ol­o­gist on board. “There will al­ways be the un­ex­pected when you go into the deep ocean.”

Half­way to the vol­cano’s sum­mit, which is 3,000 feet be­low the sur­face of the Pa­cific, no sun­light pen­e­trated. The only light that could be seen from the sub­ma­rine’s face-sized win­dows was the bluish glow of the ves­sel’s own bright lights. Oc­ca­sion­ally, bi­o­lu­mi­nes­cent crea­tures drifted past in the dark­ness.

Stone and sub­pi­lot Terry Kerby, who helps run the Hawaii Un­der­sea Re­search Lab­o­ra­tory at the Univer­sity of Hawaii, watched as the vol­cano and its rugged basalt walls hun­dreds of yards high came into view.

Seamounts are ei­ther ac­tive or dor­mant vol­ca­noes that rise dra­mat­i­cally from the bot­tom of the ocean and never reach the sur­face. They are hotspots for ma­rine life be­cause they carry nu­tri­ent-rich wa­ter up­ward from the sea floor. Seamounts are be­lieved to cover about 18 mil­lion square miles of the planet.

Cook, sit­u­ated over 100 miles south­west of Hawaii’s Big Is­land, is part of a group of un­der­sea vol­ca­noes known as the Ge­ol­o­gist Seamounts that are about 80 mil­lion years old and could hold many new an­i­mal species, as well as el­e­ments such as nickel and cobalt that min­ing com­pa­nies could ex­tract.

“My goal to­day is to ... find out what’s liv­ing on them, find out how they sup­port ocean life, what their ef­fect is from ocean

cur­rents and es­sen­tially what drives the ocean, what makes the ocean what it is,” Stone said. “Seamounts are a key part of that, and some­thing which hu­man­ity knows very lit­tle about.”

Within min­utes of the ves­sel’s ar­rival at the sum­mit, life be­gan to ap­pear — a starfish cling­ing to a rock, joined shortly af­ter by eels, sharks, chi­maera (also known as “ghost sharks”), shrimp, crabs and two rare Dumbo oc­to­puses. One of the oc­to­puses changed color from white to pink to red­dish brown as it swam by.

Sev­eral types of deep-sea corals were found along the seamount’s cliffs, in­clud­ing a vi­brant pur­ple one.

“I need to go home, look through the lit­er­a­ture ... and also go and run some ge­netic analy­ses,” said So­nia Row­ley, a post­doc­toral re­searcher at the Univer­sity of Hawaii who is tak­ing part in the project. “But as this is a new seamount ... that no one had dived on be­fore, it won’t be any sur­prise to me whether this is go­ing to be a new species.”

Two other seamounts were stud­ied over three days of ex­pe­di­tions: McCall, home to a large num­ber of small deep-sea sharks, and Lo’ihi, an ac­tive vol­cano.

Lo’Ihi has been ex­ten­sively sur­veyed by manned sub­mersibles over the past 30 years. The past few times Kerby was there, he saw a large Pa­cific sleeper shark lurk­ing about the vol­cano’s crater.

As hot vents shot out vol­canic gases around them, the team re­leased bait in the wa­ter and the 7foot shark ap­peared in front of the sub­ma­rine. Kerby was de­lighted to see his “old friend.”

The team also saw 6-foot eels and a num­ber of new ge­o­log­i­cal for­ma­tions around the crater. Sci­en­tists say Lo’ihi is likely to some­day be­come the new­est is­land in the Hawaii chain as vol­canic ac­tiv­ity pushes the sum­mit up­ward.

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