Smoke-like columns of mineral-rich water rise from a hydrothermal vent—one of ten active volcanic vents recently discovered in the Gulf of California (map), the long, narrow body of water between Baja California and mainland Mexico.
The vents are the first to be found in the region despite many years of searching. Scientists had suspected active vents existed in the gulf, due to the region's volcanic activity, but until now they'd been hard to track down. (Watch video: What are hydrothermal vents?)
The new "black smokers" were found using sonar-equipped robotic submarines, which were deployed during the last leg of a three-month expedition by California's Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). The team has been using sonar vehicles to successfully locate new vents in the northeastern Pacific since 2006.
On the latest excursion, sonar maps of the seafloor revealed the tell-tale structures of vent chimneys, showing the team just where to send its remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).
"The way that people found hydrothermal vents in the past was by studying the water column and looking for temperature or turbidity anomalies and hoping to see something close by," said MBARI senior scientist David Clague.
"It was basically driving around in the dark and hoping you fell into it."
Image courtesy MBARI
Near one of the newfound hydrothermal vents, a gang of galatheid crabs clambers across an old sulfide mound, once home to a tube worm community. "All the little round holes were clusters of tube worms that died as the mound became inactive," MBARI's Clague explained.
Hydrothermal vents are regions where cool seawater seeps down through cracks in the seafloor and gets warmed by hot magma beneath Earth's crust. As the water heats up, it becomes buoyant. The mineral-enriched water rises back toward the surface, where it spews geyser-like out of vents in the seafloor.
Active vents can heat the surrounding water in the otherwise chilly deep ocean to more than 600 degrees Fahrenheit (350 degrees Celsius).
Some organisms, such as tube worms, use symbiotic bacteria to feed on chemicals that seep up from cracks around the vents. These creatures help form the foundations for larger communities of marine organisms not found in any other ocean ecosystem.
Image courtesy MBARI
A pale galatheid crab hangs on the branches of a white coral growing on a dead vent chimney near one of the newfound hydrothermal vents.
At 2.5 to 3 feet (0.7 to 1 meter) tall, the white corals found in the Gulf of California are unusually large, Clague said. "They were the biggest ones that any of us had ever seen."
The mechanical manipulator arm of the ROV Doc Ricketts collects samples from the relatively thin outer shell of a "pillow" lava formation—so named for its round shape—that had drained before fully solidifying.
"To me, these are little gold mines, because I can sample them" to determine the lava's composition, Clague said.
A tube worm community grows on top of a lava mound near an active hydrothermal vent in the Gulf of California. The biggest worms in this picture are about 5 feet (1.5 meters) long.
"This worm has no gut," Clague said. Instead, "it has bacteria in its tissue that can convert the hydrogen sulfide [leaking from the seafloor] to sulfate." This releases energy, which is food for the worm.