Sub heads for Cayman Trough

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.

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