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 (WHOI) ‘s Dive and Discover Web site were made at the start of a month-long National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded expedition. (See: The Dive and Discover site was supported by WHOI, and NSF.

“This expedition has been four years in-the-making: we needed to get a remotely-operated vehicle (ROV), a large research
vessel, and a multi-disciplinary group of scientists to a location distant from the U.S.,” said Phil Taylor, director of NSF’s biological oceanography program. “After the Japanese
discovery of some hydrothermal vent activity in the region, excitement grew about what might be found, and how resident ecosystems in and around these vents might differ from those studied in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.”

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 year, 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 in late March 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 from an area near the Triple Junction at 25o 19.2′ S latitude and 70o 1.8′ E longitude.

White sea anemones resembling fuzzy snowballs cover the base of the smokers, plump mussels, snails and crabs live nearby, and
thumb-sized shrimp swarm around the chimneys in search of food. Further exploration may reveal more animals and extensive vent fields. Many of the animals could be new species.

ROV Jason and a suite of vehicles will explore other areas for vent fields. Scientists will collect biological samples and samples of vent and smoker fluid and plumes, rocks and sediment samples from the seafloor, and map the area before the ship returns to Mauritius on May 1.