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Dive to the Abyss

Into The Deep 1 | 2

Smoky Waters

Like underwater torches, researchers have discovered spooky underwater vents that spew black, boiling water. The water flows through channels in the sea floor, eventually emerging through tall, chimney-like structures built from minerals that precipitate out of the water. The chimneys -- dubbed "black smokers" -- support remarkable communities of chemosynthetic organisms, are often surrounded by heaps of valuable minerals.

Recently, researchers got the rare chance to retrieve and cut open a black smoker in a bid to learn more. The research submersible Alvin accidentally broke off the chimney while surveying hydrothermal vents in the ocean west of Chile. Alvin's crew decided to retrieve the chunk and bring it to the surface, eventually turning it over to geologist Cornel de Ronde of New Zealand's Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences to study.

"Fewer than a dozen black smoker chimneys of this size have been retrieved, and this is one of the biggest and best preserved ever recovered," de Ronde notes. "There are only a handful of submarines in the world suitably equipped to recover chimneys from such depths," Dr. de Ronde said.

The mineral-packed chimney stood about 4 feet tall and weighed nearly 150 pounds. Using a diamond-encrusted saw, de Ronde sliced it in half. The slice revealed an interior channel lined with glittering metallic crystals, including copper and possibly silver. Eventually, de Ronde will date the chimney's layers to find out when it formed and how quickly it grew. He believes the chimney is probably less than 10 years old because it was not seen in an earlier dive to the same spot in 1994.

Historic Wrecks

Perhaps no deep-sea wreck is as famous as that of the ocean liner Titanic, discovered by famed explorer Bob Ballard in 1985. It sits 12,500 feet down in the North Atlantic. But the Titanic isn't the only ill-fated vessel to be rediscovered by undersea explorers. In May 2002, Ballard also found what appeared to be the remains of PT-109, a marine patrol boat captained by John F. Kennedy during World War II. In August 1943, Kennedy's boat was sliced in half by a Japanese destroyer during a night mission; the story of how he helped rescue a number of his crew later became part of the Kennedy mystique, and helped propel him to the presidency.

Today, what remains of PT-109 sits in 1,300 feet of water near the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. And there it will stay. "We have an understanding with the Kennedy family as well as others who lost loved ones -- there were two people lost from the boat -- that we will not disturb the site and we will not dig it up," Ballard told reporters after the find. So, like so many other wrecks, PT-109 will sit in the dark sea, a silent memorial.

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