April 5, 2001
Scientists exploring a remote area of the central Indian Ocean seafloor two and one-half miles deep have found animals that look like fuzzy snowballs and chimney-like structures two stories tall spewing super-heated water full of toxic metals. The findings, released on the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Dive and Discover Web site (http://www.divediscover.whoi.edu/) were made at the start of a month-long expedition funded by the National Science Foundation. Images and data from the seafloor may provide critical answers to long standing questions about the diversity of life in the deep sea, how animals move from place to place and how the ocean crust is changing. A Japanese team is reported to have discovered hydrothermal vents in the Indian Ocean last fall, but little information has been publicly available.
The 34-member team of scientists and engineers from a dozen institutions are working aboard the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s 279-foot Research Vessel Knorr. The ship left the Seychelles last week to pick up additional equipment at Mauritius before heading to the central Indian Ocean, a remote area where three of the Earth’s giant crustal plates converge at what is called the Triple Junction. Scientists began mapping the area and deployed instruments to detect seawater temperatures higher than normal, an indication of possible hydrothermal activity. Higher temperatures were found, and the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) Jason, which is equipped with numerous environmental sensors and cameras, was deployed for closer inspection. According to website reports, Jason’s cameras revealed an array of marine life and chimney-like structures called black smokers because of their resemblance to smoke stacks. The first images came yesterday from an area near the Triple Junction at 25 ° 19.2′ S latitude and 70 ° 1.8′ E longitude.
White sea anemones resembling fuzzy snowballs cover the base of the smokers, some rising more than two stories high; plump mussels, snails and crabs live nearby, and thumb-sized shrimp swarm around the chimneys in search of food. Further exploration in the coming weeks may reveal more animals and extensive vent fields. Many of the animals could be new species.
ROV Jason and a suite of exploration vehicles will explore other areas for vent fields in the coming weeks. Scientists will collect biological samples and samples of vent and smoker fluid and plumes, rocks and sediment samples from the sea floor, and map the area before the ship returns to Mauritius on May 1.
Scientists and engineers from a dozen institutions are aboard the R/V Knorr for the expedition, led by chief scientist Cindy van Dover of The College of William and Mary. In addition to a large scientific and operations team from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, researchers represent Harvard University, Louisiana State University, Monterey Bay Research Aquarium, Oregon State University, Portland State University, University of Hawaii, University of New Hampshire, University of Washington, and the Southhampton Oceanography Centre in the United Kingdom.
Note to editors: Scientists at sea will be unavailable until next week; daily updates are available at the Web site: http://www.divediscover.whoi.edu/. For images and further information contact the WHOI Media Relations Office, 508-289-3340, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.