Exploring a Strange Underwater World

Remote-operated vessel
Photo credit: Schmidt Ocean Institute

Underwater hot springs on the ocean floor host some of the weirdest life on Earth. Strange worms, crabs and other organisms thrive without sunlight, living off minerals spewing from the hydrothermal vents.

Robert Zierenberg, professor emeritus in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, has studied seafloor vents since the first ones were discovered in the eastern Pacific Ocean in 1977.

“Off and on for four decades, I have marveled at these deep-sea oases of life and concentrated energy and chemical exchange between the deep earth and the oceans,” Zierenberg wrote in a recent blog post

Robert Zierenberg
Robert Zierenberg. Photo credit: Schmidt Ocean Institute

Discovering Deep-Sea Vents

With vast areas of the ocean still unexplored, scientists such as Zierenberg continue to find new hydrothermal vents. In 2015, he was aboard a research ship from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) when it happened upon a new hydrothermal vent field in the Gulf of California’s Pescadero Basin.

“My first impression of that vent field was that it was potentially one of the most important of the hundred-plus known vent fields, in terms of the potential for answering lingering questions, which despite the 40 years of research, are still unanswered,” Zierenberg recalled.

This November, a team of scientists led by Zierenberg, David Caress of MBARI, and Victoria Orphan of Caltech, returned to the Gulf of California on the R/V Falkor for a full investigation of the Pescadero Basin vents. The Falkor, owned by the Schmidt Ocean Institute, used remote-operated vehicles to explore the vents and livestream the exploration online.

Here are some of the successes and discoveries from the expedition.