Aug. 4, 2011—The Irish-led VENTuRE scientific expedition aboard the national research vessel RV Celtic Explorer has discovered a previously uncharted field of hydrothermal vents along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge – the first to be explored north of the Azores. The mission, led by Dr. Andy Wheeler of University College, Cork (UCC), together with scientists from the National Oceanographic Centre and the University of Southampton in the UK, NUI Galway and the Geological Survey of Ireland, returned to Cork today (Aug. 4) from an investigation 3,000 metres below the surface of the sea using the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) Holland 1.
Hydrothermal vents, which spew mineral-rich seawater heated to boiling point by volcanic rock in the Earth’s crust below, are home to a rich variety of marine life that thrives in complete darkness on bacteria fed by chemicals. The investigation was supported by the Marine Institute under the 2011 Ship-Time Programme of the National Development Plan and by the National Geographic Society, which filmed the work for inclusion in an upcoming National Geographic Channel series, “Alien Deep,” premiering globally in 2012.
“On the first dive, we found the edge of the vent field within two hours of arriving on the seafloor,” said Dr. Wheeler of UCC. “The ROV descended a seemingly bottomless underwater cliff into the abyss. We never reached the bottom, but rising up from below were these chimneys of metal sulphides belching black plumes of mineral-rich superheated water. Often the search for vents takes much longer, and our success is a testament to the hard work and skill of everyone on board.”
Speaking from the RV Celtic Explorer in Cork, Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine Mr. Simon Coveney said “This work is an example of an exciting new discovery made by the Celtic Explorer and its present crew of Irish and International scientists. Through vessels like the Celtic Explorer, Irish academics and scientists can work with other international experts to explore the sea bed in the Atlantic and make groundbreaking new discoveries. Ireland is positioning itself as a centre for marine research from a European and international perspective and this work should be supported and welcomed.”
Dr. Bramley Murton of the National Oceanography Centre in the UK, who first saw clues for possible vents on an expedition aboard the UK research vessel RRS James Cook in 2008 and who led the mineralisation study on the expedition, said, “Our discovery is the first deep-sea vent field known on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge north of the Azores. Although people have been crossing this ocean for centuries, we are the first to reach this spot beneath the waves and witness this natural wonder. The sense of awe at what we are seeing does not fade, and now we are working hard to understand what our discovery tells us about how our planet works.”
Patrick Collins from NUI Galway’s Ryan Institute, who led Ireland’s marine biological team investigating this unique ecosystem, is working in collaboration with Jon Copley of the University of Southampton to catalogue and characterise the species found at the vents. “Everyone on board is proud of this Irish discovery, which we have called the ‘Moytirra Vent Field,'” said Collins. “Moytirra is the name of a battlefield in Irish mythology, and appropriately means ‘Plain of the Pillars.’ The largest chimney we have found is huge – more than ten metres tall – and we have named it ‘Balor’ after a legendary giant. In comparison with other vent fields, Moytirra contains some monstrous chimneys and is in an unusual setting at the bottom of a cliff—a real beauty.”
“Using the ROV’s high-definition video camera, we’ve watched unusual orange-bodied shrimp crawling around the chimneys, among clusters of tiny green limpets,” said Jon Copley. “Elsewhere there are writhing scale-worms, swirling mats of bacteria and eel-like fish – a riot of life in this unlikely haven on the ocean floor.”
The mission carried geochemists, marine biologists, marine geologists, marine geneticists and technicians from Ireland and the UK as well as a TV crew from National Geographic. It was supported by the Marine Institute under the 2011 Ship-Time Programme of the National Development Plan.
“This project clearly demonstrates Ireland’s capacity to undertake world-class marine research on a significant scale, a capacity created through strategic national investments in facilities such as the Celtic Explorer and the Holland 1,” said Dr. Peter Heffernan, Chief Executive of the Marine Institute. “This targeted use of research funding by our organisation, which has enabled senior Irish scientists to lead this survey in partnership with international colleagues, has resulted in scientific discoveries of global interest which will enhance Ireland’s growing reputation in deep-sea exploration.”.
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The mission was led by Chief Scientist Dr. Andy Wheeler – Vice Head of the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences and Senior Lecturer at University College, Cork (UCC). Other team members included:
- Dr. Bram Murton (Geochemist) – National Oceanography Centre, Southampton.
- Dr. Jon Copley (Marine Biologist) – University of Southampton
- Dr. Boris Dorschel (Marine Geologist) – UCC
- Prof. John Benzie (Marine Geneticist) – UCC
- Dr. Darryl Green (Marine Geochemist) – NOC
- Dr. Jens Carlsson (Marine Geneticist) – UCC
- Patrick Collins (Marine Biologist) – NUI Galway
- Mark Coughlan (Marine Geologist) – UCC
- Aaron Lim (Marine Geologist) – UCC
- Alice Antoniacomi (Marine Geneticist) – UCC
- Maria Judge (Marine Geologist) – Geological Survey of Ireland
- Verity Nye (Marine Biologist) – University of Southampton
- Kirsty Morris (Marine Biologist) – NOC
The purpose of the mission was to study two major, deep-sea ecosystems in relation to:
- The biogeography and evolution of chemical-based ecosystems on the first deep-water hydrothermal vent field yet detected along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge between the Azores and Iceland, and;
- The significant westward extension of the known area of active coral growth in the Porcupine Seabight.
Hydrothermal vents occur where cracks in the Earth’s crust allow seawater to penetrate downwards into areas of subterranean volcanic activity. Here the seawater is not only heated to boiling point, but also permeated with dissolved minerals and suspended solids from the molten rock. This heated seawater then gushes back upwards into the ocean, giving rise to ‘black smokers’ and ‘white smokers’ – similar in appearance to miniature erupting volcanoes.
The first indications of the Moytirra Vent Field being investigated by the mission were sensed in 2008 by scientists aboard the UK research vessel RRS James Cook through the pinpointing of a plume of heated water emanating from the seabed. The VENTuRE expedition deployed the Remotely Operated Vehicle ROV Holland 1, precisely locating the source of the heated water and getting the very first images of what it looked like.
Like their tropical counterparts, deepwater (or coldwater) corals are colonies of simple animals resembling sea anemones that secrete calcium carbonate to protect themselves, forming extensive and delicate reefs. Over millennia, these reefs build up to form “carbonate mounds” on the seabed, which can be detected using sound waves. Because their delicate nature makes coldwater coral reefs susceptible to damage from dredging or deepwater fishing, and because they form unique ecosystems offering shelter to a wide variety of marine life, many coldwater coral reefs around the Irish coast have been declared ‘Special Areas of Conservation (SACs).’ The VENTuRE expedition has mapped the coral reefs on the western Moira Mounds and deployed the ROV Holland 1 to estimate the abundance and density of live coral.
RV Celtic Explorer
The RV Celtic Explorer is 65.5m in length and accommodates 35 personnel, including 19-21 scientists. She is able to facilitate both national and international research and exploration. The vessel is based in Galway, which is ideally located as the gateway to the Atlantic and geographically close to the main working areas.
Apart from being an excellently designed vessel, fitted with the latest electronics and scientific equipment, the key attributes of the Celtic Explorer include:
- The vessel is acoustically silent, which minimises fish avoidance and provides an ideal environment for the collection of high-quality acoustic data with minimal interference from vessel noise.
- The new vessel is a multipurpose vessel, being able to change from a survey programme to a fisheries programme, with relative ease.
- Large laboratory spaces and IT rooms fitted with scientific equipment.
- A full complement of survey equipment and winches.
- Adapted to accommodate a variety of Remotely Operated Vehicles, including the deepwater ROV Holland I
ROV Holland 1
The Marine Institute’s Deepwater Remotely Operated Vehicle Holland 1 was co-funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). It is named after John Phillip Holland from Liscannor, Co. Clare, Ireland, who was an early inventor and builder of submarines.
This 3,000-metre-rated system allows an expansion in the level of deepwater research undertaken by Irish researchers as well as being available as a national resource to state agencies in emergency situations such as casualty investigation, wreck surveys or salvage.
The ROV system was designed and built by SMD Ltd (Newcastle, UK) and is designed to accommodate a wide range of user equipment without modification. Ample space is available within the vehicle frame for accommodation of scientific payload, numerous survey ports for a wide variety of equipment including multi-beam, CTD, and nutrient sensors. Numerous spare serial and I/O ports have been incorporated into the system to allow a wide range of scientific sensors to be deployed.
The vehicle is equipped with a high level of auto control features, including auto hold which is invaluable in the completion of delicate scientific tasks. The vehicle is also equipped with the latest underwater camera equipment, including a HDTV camera and recording system to allow the capture of high-definition footage for a variety of uses.
This will be augmented by a unique underwater lighting system being developed by the Irish company Cathx Ocean as part of a robotic “machine vision” system designed to significantly enhance image quality and to increase the autonomous function of Remotely Operated Vehicles, thereby increasing efficiency and cost-effectiveness.
The ROV Holland 1 is a fully contained system including launch and recovery systems and, whilst primarily designed to operate from the RV Celtic Explorer, is readily capable of mobilization from a range of suitable vessels as required.