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Images: Searching for Life on the Seafloor

Fluids venting from the seafloor are rich in chemicals that sustain deep-sea life in the absence of light and photosynthesis. Similar chemosynthetic life forms could have existed early in Earth’s history and could exist on other planetary bodies. (NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, Mid-Cayman Rise Expedition 2011)

In the 2009 expedition to the Mid-Cayman Spreading Center, scientists used Nereus, a vehicle that can dive to 11,000 meters (nearly 7 miles). (Advanced Imaging and Visualization Laboratory, WHOI)

In 2009, scientists searched for the first time for hydrothermal vents and deep-sea life surrounding them in the Mid-Cayman Spreading Center, in the middle of the Cayman Trough, south of Cuba. At the boundaries of two of Earth’s tectonic plates, the spreading center is 5,000 to 6,500 meters (3 to 4 miles) deep and spreading apart at an ultraslow rate (less than 2.5 centimeters or 1 inch per year). (Jack Cook, WHOI)

During their 2009 search, scientists discovered two new vent sites. One was named after the undersea explorer Jacques Piccard and the other after Karen Von Damm, an early pioneer studying the chemistry of fluids from hydrothermal vents. (Courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, Mid-Cayman Rise Expedition 2011)

Karen Von Damm, shown here with the human occupied vehicle Alvin, was an MIT/WHOI Joint Program graduate student in the early 1980s and a mentor to this article’s author, Jill McDermott. Von Damm died in 2008. (Dan Fornari, WHOI)

MIT/WHOI Joint Program student Jill McDermott. (Courtesy of Jill McDermott)