Extinct Underwater Volcano Teeming With Life Explored By Humans For The First Time

A new species of deep-sea coral may have been spotted lingering on the Cook seamount. Caleb Jones/AP/PA Images

Robin Andrews 16 Sep 2016, 22:48

It’s commonly said that we know more about deep space than we do about our own oceans, and this is almost certainly true. From enormous asteroid craters to mysterious lifeforms, discoveries about the marine underworld are often nothing short of revelatory. As revealed in an exclusive report by the Associated Press, a team aboard the three-man submarine Pisces V hope to uncover some dramatic secrets of their own off the coast of Hawaii, and they are off to an incredible start.

Thanks to the upwelling superheated plume of magma beneath these isles, underwater volcanoes named “seamounts” are continuously rising up from the seafloor. When the underlying tectonic plate moves inexorably on, these seamounts stop spewing lava but remain standing.

Nutrients keep upwelling through them via active hydrothermal vents, and consequently these mounds are fantastic realms of biodiversity, featuring cornucopias of flora, fauna, and microbial life unlike anywhere else on Earth. Investigating these hidden environments is the primary objective of the Pisces V.

The Cook seamount is just one such biodiverse domain. At a height of 3,962 meters (13,000 feet), it's slightly taller than Mount Fuji, and researchers from Conservation International and the University of Hawaii have just this month laid eyes on it in person – the first time anyone has done so in human history. Already, a new species of violet-colored coral dubbed “Purple Haze” has been discovered.

As sunlight disappeared from view, the submarine’s only source of natural light was that being emitted from bioluminescent creatures swimming insouciantly past. At the summit, the team could see starfish, eels, sharks, shrimp, crabs, and some extremely rare forms of life. Two Dumbo octopuses, recognizable by their protruding ear-like fins, were seen pootling along, as were chimaeras, a fish that split off from the shark lineage 400 million years ago.

Beneath the waves, above the seamount. AP

“We don't know anything about the ocean floor,” Peter Seligmann, co-founder of Conservation International, told AP. The group plan to visit around 50 seamounts over the next five years. “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.”

The team have also visited Lo-ihi, the active volcano at the top of the mantle plume. One day, it will rise from the sea and become the new major active volcano in the area, just like Kilauea is today.

For now, it’s home to a number of deep-sea sharks, including a Pacific sleeper shark that seems to like lurking above the volcanic crater. The team have seen this risk-taking apex predator so much that they consider him an “old friend”.

A deep-sea shark swims above several eels at the summit of the Cook seamount. Caleb Jones/AP/PA Images

[H/T: Associated Press]

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