This article is from the Caymanian Compass
By: Norma Connolly
A team of British scientists has set out for the Cayman Trough to explore the world’s deepest volcanic rift.
In November last year, a team from the United States discovered scientifically important deep sea vents in the three-mile deep Cayman Trough and now a British team is going to investigate that discovery further.
The expedition left Trinidad on board the Royal Research Ship James Cook at 3am on Friday morning to start its 1,300 mile journey to the Cayman Trough. They hoped to get to their destination some time on Tuesday. The expedition will end in Jamaica on 24 April.
They will be looking for the deepest “black smoker” vents detected so far on the ocean floor and the marine life that exists around them.
“Studying the species that thrive in such unlikely havens gives us insights into patterns of marine life around the world, and even the possibility of life on other planets,” said Jon Copley, a marine biologist at the University of Southampton and leader of the research programme.
People can track the team’s explorations and adventures on a website that the researchers will update daily.
In an email to the Caymanian Compass on Monday, Mr. Copley said: “We left Trinidad on Thursday last week, and we should arrive at the Cayman Trough early tomorrow morning [Tuesday].
“The first few days will involve surveying the seafloor from the ship, to hunt for deep-sea volcanic vents. When we’ve pinpointed those, we’ll dive with our undersea vehicle to hopefully get a first look at them, and the marine life around them – possibly by this weekend or early next week,” he said.
Other researchers in the expedition are Doug Connelly, Bramley Murton, Kate Stansfield and Paul Tyler, all from the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton.
Also on board the RSS James Cook is a robot submarine called Autosub6000 that can dive 3.73 miles and a remotely-controlled deep-sea vehicle called HyBIS, which the team will use to find features and inhabitants of the world’s undersea volcanoes for the first time.
Deep-sea vents are undersea volcanic springs that erupt mineral-rich water hot enough to melt lead. They were discovered in the Pacific three decades ago, but most are found one to two miles deep, dotted along chains of undersea volcanoes around the world.
Scientists have been fascinated by these vents because they support lush colonies of deep-sea creatures that thrive in the otherwise sparsely-populated abyss.
Deep sea vent creatures feed on microbes that are nourished by minerals in the superheated water, creating an ecosystem that is not reliant on sunlight as its energy source.
The robot submarine on board the ship was developed by engineers at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, UK. It can map the ocean floor in detail, survey the currents and chemistry of deep waters, and take photographs.
The HyBIS, built by engineering company Hydro-Lek Ltd in Berkshire, UK, can be remotely-controlled from the ship to film the ocean floor and collect samples of rocks and deep-sea creatures.
The researchers hope to compare the marine life at the bottom of the Cayman Trough with that known from other deep-sea vents.
The team will also investigate the geology of the area and the hot water that gushes from deep-sea vents.
“Because deep-sea vents get hotter at greater depths, we expect these vents to be the hottest yet,” said geochemist Mr. Connelly, who will be the principal scientist aboard the ship. The world-record temperature for a deep-sea vent is 403ºC, at a vent 2.67 miles deep in the middle of the Atlantic.
The expedition will also leave instruments on the ocean floor to monitor the little-known deep-sea currents of the Cayman Trough, and deploy experiments to investigate how deep-sea creatures colonise new habitats.
During the voyage, the scientists will be posting updates about their progress live from the ship at www.thesearethevoyages.net
“We look forward to sharing the excitement of our expedition with people around the world”, said Mr. Copley.