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"Volcanoes of the Deep"

PBS Airdate: March 30, 1999
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ANNOUNCER: Tonight on NOVA. Descend into the abyss, where volcanic chimneys billow scalding, acidic plumes, and give rise to an intriguing world of ocean life. Is the key to life's origins locked inside their fiery cores? A team of explorers tests the limits of ocean engineering to bring these towering monoliths to the surface. Will they succeed? "Volcanoes of the Deep."

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Park Foundation. Dedicated to education and quality television.

This program is funded in part by Northwestern Mutual Life, which has been protecting families and businesses for generations. Have you heard from the Quiet Company? Northwestern Mutual Life.

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And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and viewers like you.

NARRATOR: Daybreak in Astoria, Oregon. The RV Atlantis, one of the world's most sophisticated research vessels, sets sail for waters 200 miles off the Pacific Coast. A team from The American Museum of Natural History and the University of Washington is launching this expedition - to attempt a daring feat of engineering on the seafloor, a mile and a half down. Their purpose: to delve as never before into the wonders of deep sea volcanoes. Towering volcanic chimneys, covered with animals unlike any other, were discovered only 20 years ago. And this newly revealed world inspired one oceanographer with the bold idea of trying to raise these massive structures to the surface.

JOHN DELANEY: I joke about this program being a bit of a harebrained idea, because when it first came to me, I kind of laughingly dismissed it. But it's not. It's not at all. We must examine in detail how volcanoes can support life on this planet. It's an ancient process. It's a potential site where life may have originated. It's also a habitat which might be emulated on other planets, where life may have evolved or may have taken refuge. For all those reasons, there is nothing harebrained about this. It just seemed harebrained at the beginning. (Laughs)

NARRATOR: It also seemed impossible.

MATT HEINTZ: Turn right.

NARRATOR: But now, undersea robots make this risky venture conceivable. The team first must map in precise detail the volcanic seabed far below. A robotic submersible, called Jason, will be their electronic eyes. Jason trails behind it a steel armored, fiber optic cable, it's communication link to the ship. As the cable reels out, the ship must hold completely stationary. Navigating by GPS, a computer controls the ship's propellers, keeping it within a few meters of the target.

DANA YOERGER: We need to flip a switch down here just before you engage the auto position.

NARRATOR: The center of activity on this vast research vessel is a cramped and steamy room packed with engineers and scientists.

DANA YOERGER: How high are we off the bottom now?

ANDY BOWEN: Five meters.

NARRATOR: This is mission control for Jason operations.

ANDY BOWEN: Could you zoom in, Dave, now?

NARRATOR: The robot, now on the seafloor, is piloted toward the chimneys. And all are eager for their first glimpse of a hidden volcanic world.

DEBORAH KELLEY: It's a fish.

ANDY BOWEN: A rattail.

NARRATOR: Jason's lights illuminate only about 30 feet ahead in these pitch black waters. They fly the robot toward a billowing plume, venting from the seafloor. Its smoke-like appearance comes from mineral particles in the scalding fluid.

DANA YOERGER: The current is pretty stiff.

NARRATOR: They are tempted to move in for a closer look. But these "black smokers" reach over 700 degrees Fahrenheit - hot enough to melt lead.

VERONIQUE ROBIGOU: This side is more active, because look, it's all covered with limpids here.

NARRATOR: Some of these chimneys tower as high as 15-story buildings. And, though sunlight never reaches them, they are blanketed with life.

VERONIQUE ROBIGOU: It's part of this mystery about this environment, is that you go through the really dark water where you don't expect to find much, and then suddenly, you start seeing life. And it's life that's very beautiful because it is very bright and luminescent, and also very striking, because it doesn't look like anything that we're used to.

NARRATOR: For the past 10 years, geologist Veronique Robigou has struggled with the question of how these chimneys grow and sustain such a wealth of unusual creatures. The birth of a chimney starts when molten rock far below the seabed heats up water circulating through the cracks. The hot water rises, carrying dissolved metals - such as iron, copper, and zinc - from deep within the crust. When this hot, acidic fluid hits near freezing seawater, the metals come out of solution to form the rocky walls of the chimney. The hot, or hydrothermal fluids that build these structures are also vital to the life that thrives here.

VERONIQUE ROBIGOU: They're really a living system, and we know now that these rocks are full of life, which we don't have access to by just sampling the surface, ever. And so, the only way to really understand the pattern of the life associated with the pattern of the flows and the pattern of the minerals inside the rock, is to bring one back, an entire structure. We've been, in a way, dreaming about doing this for several years now.

NARRATOR: An intense curiosity has driven these scientists to pursue a more hands-on approach, to explore this living system.

JOHN DELANEY: The kinds of studies that we need to be able to do with the samples cannot be done on the seafloor. We need to look inside. This is the circulatory system of this living ecological community, and to understand it, we can't simply sit on the seafloor and watch it.

NARRATOR: But to haul a massive chimney up from the seafloor, the engineers first must know what they are grappling with. These 2-D video images won't be enough. As night falls, the team prepares to try a cutting-edge technology. They want to create 3-D maps of the structures accurate to within centimeters. To generate maps in such detail, the robot, Jason, must hover like a hummingbird, and move precisely around the chimneys. At each new position, Jason will take pictures that a computer will later compile in 3-D. Pinpointing Jason's exact location is critical, and requires navigation beacons, called transponders, that send acoustic signals to guide the robot. The transponders are dropped to the seafloor in a special carrying cage. It is now 4:00 a.m., but on a ship that never sleeps, operations run night and day.

DANA YOERGER: Bingo. OK, we're there.

NARRATOR: With their new navigation equipment, they no longer need the joystick to pilot Jason.

DANA YOERGER: Pat, are you in auto right now?

PAT HICKEY: Do you want me to go in auto?


PAT HICKEY: You got it.

NARRATOR: Now, a computer program has control of the robot. Jason begins taking sonar scans of the chimneys, as well as stereo video and digital photographs. To complete the 3-D imaging, the robot and the scientists work around the clock. A week later, with tens of thousands of digital photos, a seascape of the ocean floor is stitched together. So dark is this undersea terrain that wide expanses like this have never been seen before. From the composite pictures, individual chimneys can be studied in detail. On the ship's main deck, computers churn through millions of sonar data points to create a 3-D map - although the first image is something only a computer scientist could love.

DANA YOERGER: Oh, whoa, yeah. That's looking almost behind the vehicle. Look, we're stopping at each meter and we're scanning. Oh, man. Now, we've just got to make it look like something so someone else will believe us. (Laughter)

NARRATOR: These are the most detailed maps ever made of the ocean bottom—the result of nearly two weeks of deep sea imaging, and countless hours of data crunching. With this virtual seafloor in 3-D, the team can now plan their recovery of the chimneys. They have illuminated at least one small part of the deep ocean. The site they have mapped in the North Pacific is part of the longest geological structure on Earth, a deep sea mountain range over 46,000 miles long, known as the Mid-ocean Ridge System. It stretches around the planet like the seams on a baseball, and marks where the great plates of the Earth's crust are spreading apart. All along this vast network, volcanic eruptions give birth to new ocean floor. And molten rock deep under the seabed creates the scalding black smokers that stream from vents and chimneys. But only a tiny fraction of this ocean inferno has ever been explored. Now, deep sea technology makes it possible to reach this frontier. And with the chimneys mapped, the scientists onboard are eager to visit them in person, to pursue the mystery of how life flourishes in this volcanic world. They will travel to the depths in a submersible called Alvin.

PAT HICKEY: Take tension, unlatch, lower when ready.

NARRATOR: On the seafloor, each square foot of its titanium hull can withstand over 700 tons of pressure. For biologist Chuck Fisher and pilot Pat Hickey, the descent will take over an hour - plenty of time for anticipation.

CHUCK FISHER: You know you're going someplace that few people have ever gone, often places where no one has gone before. And so, that's a very real excitement that you have with you the whole time.

NARRATOR: Through Alvin's porthole, the aqua of the surface waters soon shifts to indigo, and then to inky black.

PAT HICKEY: Atlantis, Alvin, on the bottom, 2212 meters.

CHUCK FISHER: When we get onto the ocean floor and the places where I study, it is a very strange environment. The plates that make up the surface of the Earth are spreading apart. Hot water is belching from the ocean bottom at 350 degrees Centigrade plus. And the geography of that terrain is just astounding. It really looks more like what one would expect to see on another planet than what one would expect to see on the Earth.

NARRATOR: And this alien world is full of surprises.

CHUCK FISHER: Passed over a big old spider crab.

NARRATOR: The deep seafloor was long considered a barren desert. Yet, as Chuck and Pat steer toward the hot vents, the "critter count" increases.

PAT HICKEY: If you look out your window, you will see a great big skate coming in to look back at your in your window.

CHUCK FISHER: Very cool.

NARRATOR: But how could life exist down here, in the cold and eternal darkness? Once, scientists assumed that any animals on the seafloor had to depend on food drifting down from the surface. But there is not nearly enough to explain the wealth of life found at hot vents - like the lush mats of tubeworms.

CHUCK FISHER: OK, Pat, what I'm looking for here is a nice clump of young tubeworms.

NARRATOR: Tubeworms are Chuck Fisher's passion. These animals are unlike any other, and when first discovered, scientists couldn't imagine what or how they ate. They have no mouths or stomachs, yet these creatures thrive wherever cracks on the seafloor release hydrogen sulfide, a product of volcanic activity. This caustic acid pours from the chimneys—often called sulfide structures. Chuck and Pat fly to a 60-foot tall chimney called Smoke and Mirrors, named for its billowing plumes and shimmering water. It is blanketed with tubeworms.

CHUCK FISHER: Here comes Alvin, for a gentle, little grab.

NARRATOR: Grabbing these slippery creatures with a robotic claw is painstaking work.

CHUCK FISHER: It doesn't take a real firm grip. Ooh, that's a good one. That was great. That's all we need.

NARRATOR: They have spent hours huddled in this six-foot diameter sphere.

CHUCK FISHER: Wow, I'm ready for a stretch.

PAT HICKEY: Atlantis, Alvin ready to come up.

CHUCK FISHER: Excellent dive, Pat. It went well.

NARRATOR: Pat releases the ballast that has kept them on the seafloor. And they prepare for the long ascent.

PAT HICKEY: We're off bottom. We're on our way home.

NARRATOR: The dangers of the open sea make the mission to recover a black smoker chimney all the more daunting. Even the routine recovery of a submersible is fraught with peril.

CHUCK FISHER: Oh, ho! Yes.

NARRATOR: As Chuck frees himself from the confines of the sub, his students tend to the tubeworms. To keep them alive at the surface, the tubeworms are rushed to a refrigerated room.

JOHN BAROSS: Amazing creatures.

NARRATOR: But the key to how they survive at all lies under the microscope. These worms harbor inside their bodies a remarkable source of food: tiny, single-celled bacteria. These microbes are able to produce food using hydrogen sulfide and other chemicals that flow around the chimneys. Each microbe is invisible to the naked eye. But when billions clump together, they appear like cottony webs, draping the seafloor. As plants at the surface use the energy of sunlight, these microbes use energy stored in chemicals to grow and multiply, supplying food to other creatures. Their discovery in the deep, nearly 20 years ago, stunned scientists.

JOHN BAROSS: We just didn't think very much about perhaps microbial chemosynthesis being the base of a major food chain. You know, we're still very much biased towards photosynthesis being the primary producers, and from there, leading to higher animals. So, that was a big surprise. I just don't think it could have been predicted, based on what we knew. And it's still a big surprise today to think that animals have co-evolved with microorganisms with that kind of abundance and that kind of density. It's still pretty awesome.

NARRATOR: The larger creatures in this world either live off microbes within their bodies or prey on one another. Giant spider crabs, snails and sea stars, the fish and the octopus - All are ultimately dependent on tiny, single-celled organisms, and the volcanic fluids that flow from the rocks. This is a world where the energy for life springs not from the sun, but from the geothermal forces of the Earth itself.

CHUCK FISHER: As a biologist, I have no doubt in my mind whatsoever that the geology is the driver for the biology. And in fact, even the structure of the rocks that are in the chimneys are going to determine the type of fauna you find on top of the chimneys.

NARRATOR: The best way to explore the links between biology and geology may be to bring a chimney to the surface - not just to understand life here today, but also the possible roots of life nearly four billion years ago.

JOHN BAROSS: The origin of life question was perhaps the most important question that came out of the discovery of the vents. The idea that environments like this, that can support microbial life, could be very, very ancient, and could resemble the first ecosystems on Earth.

NARRATOR: When life took hold on the planet, around four billion years ago, there was a vast network of hydrothermal vents - perhaps providing the geochemical energy to spawn and support life. There is now evidence that the surface of this early Earth was bombarded by meteors and asteroids. The safest harbor for life may have been in the deep. The geology and chemistry of the vents have changed little in billions of years. Scientists have shown that the combination of high pressure and minerals found here can produce ammonia, an essential building block of life. And by delving inside a chimney, they may find clues to how life itself originated.

JOHN BAROSS: I think there is a very, very high probability of finding life forms that still retain genetic characteristics of some of the earliest life forms to evolve on Earth. And so, from that perspective, it's a hunt. It's a hunt for what I would call genetic fossils, and trying to find habitats that really are mimicking larger scale environments that may have occurred several billion years ago.

JOHN DELANEY: The kind of study that we want to accomplish with the recovery of large sulfide structures from the seafloor is to reach back into those conditions and see if we can understand what the physics and the chemistry might tell us about that early environment in which life evolved.

NARRATOR: With the mapping and reconnaissance of the chimneys complete, the team must now prepare for its next, and more daunting mission. As these scientists know, the challenges of working in the ocean are as great as its mysteries. Here, on Vancouver Island, preparations for the recovery mission move into high gear.

KEITH SHEPHERD: OK, Bob, can you give me the compensation pressures, please?

NARRATOR: The engineers are tackling the tricky problem of how to detach black smoker chimneys from the seafloor. Today, they are testing a Stanley underwater chainsaw, fitted with diamond-studded teeth. It will be operated by a robot called ROPOS. But nothing they do here can anticipate all of the problems they will face with volcanic chimneys.

KEITH SHEPHERD: These structures have always had hot water pouring through the,, and we're not sure at this point what's going to happen. We can get the saw blade in there and have - open up a new passage for the water to come out, so hot water can start squirting out around the saw blade and back towards the vehicle. It's definitely a concern.

NARRATOR: Even worse, the blade could get trapped, and the destabilized chimney could come crashing down on the robot.

LEROY OLSON: A lot of times, it's the things you don't really think about that catch you. From the time we start one of these operations until it's actually secured on the deck, we're going to be nervous about it because there are so many unknowns we're dealing with. But that's the way it is in going to sea. And we keep plugging. We never give up until we have to come back to port.

NARRATOR: From the time they set sail, the team will have three weeks to bring the chimneys to the surface.

ED MATHEZ: This certainly must be one of the most ambitious expeditions that the museum has ever mounted. And also, there's an element of risk in this. In fact, there's a great element of risk. And perhaps, that's one of the fun things about expeditions, is that you don't actually ever know if you're going to get what you set out to get.

NARRATOR: As night falls, they navigate their way through Puget Sound, and into the North Pacific. It's been nearly a year since the team last visited these waters and the volcanic ridge far below. During this time, the seafloor could have changed drastically. They launch ROPOS on this first, critical dive, not knowing for certain what they'll encounter a mile and a half down.

KEITH SHEPHERD: OK. We're still above the bottom, but the vehicle has left the cage, and we're just maneuvering around. And we'll be descending to the bottom shortly.

RADIO: OK. Roger that.

DEBORAH KELLEY: I bet you this is that little basin.

NARRATOR: Flying toward the heart of the chimney field, they are on the lookout for familiar terrain.

DEBORAH KELLEY: OK, we can see Faulty Towers. It's just coming into view. There should be a marker.

JOHN DELANEY: OK, that means that we turn to the right, if we turn west, we should see Twin Peaks.

DEBORAH KELLEY: Yeah, this is it.

JOHN DELANEY: So, it's right across over there.

DEBORAH KELLEY: There's a marker.

NARRATOR: They left markers to guide them back to the chimneys they selected last year. Their detailed maps tell them what these targets should look like. But until they find them, the team can't be sure that the chimneys they plan to recover are still standing.

JOHN DELANEY: Keith, check this one here.

NARRATOR: The dynamic world of deep sea volcanoes is prone to change. They will never forget the sobering lesson they learned a few years ago from a monstrous chimney called Godzilla. When first sighted, this chimney rose over 140 feet - a skyscraper on the seafloor. But when geologist Veronique Robigou went back to visit Godzilla, she was in for a shock.

VERONIQUE ROBIGOU: When we arrived at Godzilla, it just didn't look like Godzilla anymore. This magnificent tower that actually looked like a gigantic mushroom didn't look like a mushroom anymore. It just looked like a stump. So, I knew something catastrophic had happened in the area. I just didn't want it to be Godzilla falling over. Then, it became really exciting, because then, we started thinking, 'So, what happened? How can we explain this?'

NARRATOR: The most likely explanation was an earthquake. The top-heavy Godzilla was toppled by one of the many tremors along this active volcanic ridge. But then, the giant rose again. Just a year after Godzilla's fall, it was covered with life, and had grown new spires nearly 15 feet high. If Godzilla could rise and fall this fast, what about the chimneys they plan to recover? Two of the structures at least are still upright. But they may have grown unwieldy.

DEBORAH KELLEY: We're going to put the hoop over one or two of the structures and measure them. It will be Phang and Finn.

NARRATOR: This metal hoop will gauge the chimney's size. Keith needs a gentle touch with the joystick. Hooping the structure is like threading a needle - a mile and a half down. One wrong move could damage the chimney.

DEBORAH KELLEY: Phang hasn't changed at all.

KEITH SHEPHERD: Well, that's it. That's as far as we thought we would get, isn't it? So, are you happy with that, Le?

LEROY OLSON: Beautiful. Very good, Bob.

NARRATOR: While only a first step, hooping Phang is a huge relief. The team's other targets also look good: A hot black smoker known as Finn; a larger structure called Gwenen, blanketed with animals; and a fourth chimney, Roane, named for a Celtic spirit of the sea. In the morning, a new ship arrives on the scene, the John P. Tully, a Canadian Coast Guard vessel. A massive winch and pulley system at the ship's stern will be used to haul the chimneys from the seafloor. The Tully's transit from Vancouver Island has been rough. Ferrying people and equipment from ship to ship will be even rougher. Strong winds and wild seas are the greatest threat to this mission. And now, there are gusts up to 30 knots. Engineer Vern Miller makes it safely onboard, but the storm still endangers the team's carefully laid plans. First, they intend to capture each chimney within a metal cage. This cage holds a loose steel cable that can be cinched up, like a lasso. The robot will then saw the chimney from various angles until it is weak enough to break off. Finally, a line will be floated to the surface, so that the structure can be pulled from the seafloor. But plenty of things can go wrong. The line for the recovery is over 8,000 feet long, and one small snare could wreak havoc. These plastic fasteners should prevent tangles. They will break, one by one, when the line is pulled from the basket. Packing the line will take nearly 10 hours. But waiting for calm seas could take even longer.

JOHN DELANEY: What do you see in that weather map?

KEITH SHEPHERD: I don't see any improvement.

JOHN DELANEY: No, I don't, either.

LEROY OLSON: Are you willing to hold? Because I think we should.


NARRATOR: While concerned about losing time, they hold operations - as the storm rages on. Two nights pass, and the winds are still threatening. Time is running out. They have to begin. They lower a cage designed to capture the first chimney. It travels down suspended beneath ROPOS. The engineers keep careful watch, fearful that in the rough seas, their delicate equipment could crash into the ship.

KEITH SHEPHERD: OK. I'm facing east now.

NARRATOR: Two hours later, Keith Shepherd has the chimney called Phang lined up.

KEITH SHEPHERD: Can you swing that more to the center? Great. Nothing like a challenge, eh? That's pretty good there, Bob.

NARRATOR: ROPOS moves in to tighten the cable. With its left claw, the robot grasps the cage for support . . .


NARRATOR: . . . and pulls the cable taut with its right.

KEITH SHEPHERD: There we go.

NARRATOR: In the control room with Keith, Bob Holland is in charge of the dexterous pulling.

KEITH SHEPHERD: Rotate, rotate, rotate. Good.

NARRATOR: Once the cable is secured, they can move ahead with the sawing. But a final tug brings a surprise.

KEITH SHEPHERD: OK, Bob, can you swing it—Oh . . . shh...

NARRATOR: A crack appears, along what seems to be a natural fracture.

JOHN DELANEY: We knew it would happen. I knew it. So, I mean, we -

LEROY OLSON: Not a year ago, you didn't. Say what you want now. (Laughs)

JOHN DELANEY: All right. I feared that it would happen, put it that way. That was a natural looking fracture. I think you could have picked it out.

LEROY OLSON: I don't know. It's hard to tell that.

JOHN DELANEY: Well, I can see one here, see?

NARRATOR: The chimney may now be unstable. They gingerly tighten the cable to keep Phang together, and prepare to plunge their chainsaw directly into the brittle structure. Scalding fluid jets out, but the blade keeps moving.

KEITH SHEPHERD: Whew! Smokin'! Should we try a bit of slew?

NARRATOR: They cut from various angles, well below the crack, without the chimney toppling. But no one can predict how Phang will hold up when they try to pull it from the seafloor.

LEROY OLSON: A scientist can go out and observe something and come back with all kinds of information, he has succeeded. An engineer goes out with a goal to bring something back, and if he doesn't bring it back, he hasn't succeeded. And when you go out and try and get something, you don't know what it is, there's a lot more risk of failure.

NARRATOR: The time has come to take the risk. With this 8,000 foot line, they will try to haul Phang to the surface. Operations switch over to the second ship, the John P. Tully, where Le and the other engineers wait. Floats have brought the line to the surface. And a zodiac retrieves it from the waves. The engineers make certain that the line is free of snares as it is threaded over the A-frame and through the heavy winch.

1st MATE: We're just about on top of the spot now.

LEROY OLSON: This is the fantail of the Tully. The unit is 1,000 feet below us now.


NARRATOR: For nearly an hour, they reel the line in, anxious to see what lies at the other end.

LEROY OLSON: It's really precarious.

VERN MILLER: It's incredible.

NARRATOR: The crack in the chimney is now a clean break. But two large pieces are still intact.

LEROY OLSON: Let's just bring it down there.

VERN MILLER: It's incredible Debbie. This is so neat. So neat.

DEBORAH KELLEY: We're really lucky. We are lucky.


LEROY OLSON: I feel elated that we got something. It broke just about where we wanted, amazingly. This is where we were really trying to cut it, pretty much. What more can you say? We have the rock aboard. It's in three sections, starting from the base up. And we just lost the top piece.

RADIO: Roger that. I'll pass that on to John. He can't wait. He's got to get over there. So, you'll be seeing him shortly there.

NARRATOR: What struck John Delaney a decade ago as a wild and impossible feat now is becoming a reality. And bringing Phang to the surface is just the beginning. This relatively small chimney was always intended as a test case.

JOHN DELANEY: That's OK. Yeah, that's OK. That's a good start. It's a good start.

NARRATOR: There are three more structures still waiting on the seafloor far below. Roane will be next. Like Phang, this chimney is riddled with natural fractures.

JOHN DELANEY: It could be. Yeah, there could be at the bottom. I mean, that's where - Yeah, there's definitely a natural one.

NARRATOR: One large fracture line inspires John with a bold thought: Why not forgo the sawing, and simply lasso and pull on the chimney, assuming it will break at the ideal spot? But not everyone is keen on the idea.

LEROY OLSON: The debate is whether there is actually a fracture zone there in the right area that will let go. And I think my point is that if we put in a cut, it can't hurt anything.

NARRATOR: But Le concedes to John's plan to do no sawing at all. The hope is that this will save precious time lost to weather delays. The wisdom of the plan will soon be measured. If Roane remains stuck to the seafloor, the tension on their heavy winch will rise.

LEROY OLSON: Tully bridge, this is the fantail. We have about 12,000 pounds tension on it now, and we're just slowly building it, very smooth.

CAPT. ON RADIO: All right. Roger that. Roger that.

NARRATOR: As they reel the line in, their own tension builds.

VERN MILLER: We're going to stop at 20,000 pounds. If it doesn't break, I don't know. (Laughs) We'll have to wait.

NARRATOR: The chimney is still anchored to the seafloor, and the tension on the line is nearly enough to rip their heavy equipment from the deck.

LEROY OLSON: Unless it breaks loose at this, I wouldn't want to go much higher. And we're going to have to decide whether to send the line cutter down or not, pretty soon here.

CAPT. ON RADIO: Roger that.

NARRATOR: While it means a major setback, Le is prepared to cut the line and start over.

LEROY OLSON: At the load we're at right now, if it was a free hanging rock down there, it would be too heavy to bring aboard. We would go over the 30,000 pound limit that way.

VERN MILLER: It just broke. (laughter)

LEROY OLSON: It came loose, and it's coming up. You're the luckiest bastard. (laughter)

NARRATOR: Roane has broken free from the seafloor. One hurdle is past. But what lies ahead will not be simple. They appear to have a multi-ton chimney on their line, and no one knows how difficult it will be to handle.

VERN MILLER: Here it comes. Here it comes.

LEROY OLSON: Here it is, in sight, right at the surface.

VERN MILLER: We've got multiple pieces. Look at the smoke coming out.

NARRATOR: At the surface, two huge pieces of Roane hang from what seems a fragile thread. One slip, and this precious haul could plunge back to the depths. And that's not all that could go wrong.

LEROY OLSON: My greatest fear is hurting somebody, or killing somebody. And it's a very strong potential, if you get this rock swinging on the deck. You can think of a wrecking ball, and you're trying to control it and get it onto the ship and secured down.

NARRATOR: Now, they must handle two swinging rocks at once. Even after traveling through a mile and a half of ocean water, Roane is steaming at nearly 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Its surface is covered with tubeworms, some still alive. Its interior is filled with billions of microbes.

JOHN BAROSS: We will have more samples, better collected samples, and better analyzed samples from these structures than we've ever had before. That has, for me, the same kind of fascination and sense of discovery and exploration that I would have if I got to go to Mars and drill, let's say, a kilometer down into the regolith and look for water and life there. I have the same kind of excitement that I'm going to find something really different, and something that's going to be of profound importance in understanding how life originated and how life evolved.

NARRATOR: While the scientists have their samples, no one wants to endure the same uncertainty again. The team will no longer count on natural fractures. The remaining chimneys will face the chainsaw. At nearly 600 degrees Fahrenheit, Finn is the hottest black smoker they will target. Sawing this chimney creates a new passage for scalding water. The geologists know that the hotter the chimney, the more fragile it should be. At the surface, Finn's delicate nature becomes apparent.

DEBORAH KELLEY: The whole thing fell apart.

NARRATOR: What they fear is a heart-breaking loss turns out to be less grave. They have still recovered two-thirds of the structure, and now have a window to its interior.

ED MATHEZ: Boy, look at that channel. That is amazing.

NARRATOR: The pieces, glittering with chalcopyrite, also known as fool's gold, are scientific treasures. They hold precious information about the geology and chemistry that supports life in the deep. The next morning, in the final hours of the cruise, the fourth chimney, Gwenen, emerges steaming, without a hitch. She is blanketed and filled with life. It's a fitting end to a journey of great travails, but even greater success, for scientists and engineers alike.

JOHN DELANEY: I think we've gotten - Scientifically, we've gotten absolutely everything we wanted.

LEROY OLSON: Four for four. That's pretty good odds.

JOHN DELANEY: Yeah. And I know why we succeeded. (laughter)

NARRATOR: This is just the start of wide-ranging research into these remarkable habitats from the seafloor, and a first step in bringing these structures and the stories they tell to the public.

ED MATHEZ: Well, we did it! (laughter)

NARRATOR: After they are thoroughly studied, the chimneys will travel to New York City, to The American Museum of Natural History, for permanent display.

JOHN DELANEY: It is not just the powerful science to be done, but the idea of bringing it home to people to understand why we do what we do, what the questions are we are asking, and what the answers may be in our best imagination. And with a structure from the seafloor, we can begin to tell the story about how the Earth works, and how volcanoes can support life. So, the recovery of the object is the beginning of telling the story, and the beginning of doing the research. It's not the end.

Take your own dive into the abyss. Journey a mile down and marvel at what swims past your porthole on NOVA's Web site,

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ANNOUNCER: Next time on NOVA, witness the private rituals of an isolated tribe. From the role of powerful hallucinogenics to drinking the precious ashes of their dead. The human drama of a people fighting for survival. "Warriors of the Amazon."


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