A Trip to the Deep Sea

blog post photo

by Claudia Ruby
author, Dawn of the Ocean

Black smokers are one of the last mysteries of our planet. It’s only 30 years ago that scientists first discovered them, and still we know very little about them. Colin Devey, geologist at the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences in Kiel, belongs to a small group of scientists who study black smokers. We want to accompany him and film his crew. But that’s not easy to do — how can you film black smokers?

These hydrothermal vents are found on the ocean floor. Colin Devey is studying a field in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) below sea level. From Germany, it takes several weeks to reach the investigation area with the research vessel. Even from the last port in Brazil, it will take the Meteor twelve days across the Atlantic Ocean. “Let’s meet on Ascension Island,” Colin Devey finally proposes. Good idea — but where is Ascension Island?

A search on the world map leads us to the middle of the blue Atlantic Ocean. About halfway between Africa and South America, there is a small island of approximately 88 square kilometers (34 square miles): Ascension Island, part of the British overseas territory of Saint Helena. It’s an exciting region for deep-sea research. The island is very close to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a mid-ocean mountain range, which forms the boundary of two tectonic plates and a zone where the sea floor actually spreads apart, causing heavy volcanic activity. “Black smokers are like windows to the inner part of our planet,” says Colin Devey.

But first we have to reach Ascension Island. And that’s not easy, because there is no airline in the world flying to Ascension Island. Everybody who wants to go to Ascension has to check in with the Royal Air Force. All flights start at RAF Brize Norton, regularly at 2200 hrs (10 pm). We spend nearly the whole day at the spacious airbase, together with many British soldiers and airmen waiting for their take-off. But most of them don’t fly to Ascension — they are heading for their missions in Afghanistan or Iraq.

The flight is on time, and nearly 10 hours later, we have a soft landing on Ascension Island. A volcanic landscape and tropical temperatures are waiting for us. For Colin Devey, the island is like Paradise. “We know very little about Ascension,” explains the geologist, who starts collecting rock cuttings. He wants to find out if there’s a connection between the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the volcanic island. He doesn’t have much time for his work, because the next day, our ship, the Meteor, will arrive. After six hours on the research vessel, we finally reach the investigation area, called Nibelungen.

The whole ship comes to life. Students begin studying maps and preparing their instruments. But first, the remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, is checked and prepared for a first trip to the sea floor. The ROV can operate at a depth of 6,000 meters (20,000 ft). A deep-sea fiberglass cable facilitates remote control, data communication, and live video streams. We start filming the work on board the Meteor, but unfortunately we can’t follow the ROV to the bottom of the ocean. Deep-sea research has become an unmanned business. If necessary, a ROV can stay and work at the sea floor for several days, collecting samples, taking measurements, recording video footage, and taking photos.

Two pilots operate the ROV — or “fly” it, as the experts call it. They work in an area filled with high-tech instruments. It’s hard to find a place for our camera. Four hours later, the ROV reaches the ground, and on the screens unfolds a fascinating underwater scenery: clouds of smoke rising from several gaps and chimneys. The pilot carefully places the ROV next to a big chimney. Slowly, he moves the temperature sensor deep into the middle of the smoke. In the cockpit, we can see how the temperature is rising: 350 degrees, 370 degrees, 400 degrees Celsius (660 … 700 … 750 °F) — it’s hard to believe. “That’s the highest temperature we’ve ever measured at a black smoker,” says Colin Devey. What we see on the screen takes place 3,000 meters (10,000 ft) below our vessel. However, it seems to us as if we were in the middle of the action!

Video Preview: “Unexplored Deep Sea” — Scientists are creating the first large-scale inventory of sea life below the surface of the oceans.

Don’t miss Dawn of the Ocean premiering August 22nd at 9P et/pt.