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
( 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.