Science, Tech & Environment

Undersea Life Around 'Black Smoker' Vents


"Black smokers" in the Cayman Trough. (Photo: BBC)

For all of you weary of winter these days, take a brief trip now to the Caribbean — but, not the turquoise waters and mild breezes you might be longing for this February.

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Imagine instead a hot, pitch-black sea filled with jagged, pipe-like outcroppings that shoot scalding fluid into the water.

They're called "black smokers" — underwater vents at the bottom of the Caribbean sea more than three miles below the surface, in an area between Cuba and Jamaica known as the Cayman Trough.

This week a British research ship is bringing up photos and video from the abyss, along with samples of some of the unique creatures that have adapted to live around the vents.

The vessel's chief scientist, Jon Copley, says the landscape down there looks completely alien to us surface dwellers.

"What's creating these chimneys is hot, mineral-rich fluid, gushing out of the ocean," Copley says.

"That's important because it plays a role in influencing the chemistry of the oceans, it's part of geologic processes that literally shape our world. Where we're working, right below us, (is) a volcanic rift in the earth's crust, where new crust is being created.

"And also marine life, new species that we're only just finding and examining, which are telling us how life disperses and evolves throughout the ocean depths."

Among those new species researchers have found furry tubeworms and an odd variety of shrimp.

But Copley says they're very different from the shrimp you might find in the supermarket.

"Instead of eyes on stalks they have a light-sentisitve patch on their back," he says, "which they use to find their way in the very very faint glow from these hot vents."

The researchers say the newly-discovered vents are the deepest ever found.