Into The Deep

Looking for a new, unexplored frontier? Then look down, and think deep.

Marine researchers estimate they've studied less than one percent of the deep ocean -- and seen virtually none of the deepest trenches and canyons. Still, the few places they have been able to study have yielded remarkable discoveries -- as NATURE's DIVE TO THE ABYSS shows. From smoking undersea volcanoes and hot springs, to deep water wrecks and weird life forms, the ocean has yielded an inspiring trove of sunken treasure.

Here's just a sampling of those remarkable deep discoveries:

Weird Life

In 1977, scientists aboard the deep-sea submersible Alvin plunged 8,000 feet into the Atlantic's Galapagos Rift, where the sea floor spreads and pushes continental plates apart. There they found massive, boiling hot springs -- and life like none ever before seen on earth. There were giant, 4-foot long tube worms, swaying in grass-like patches amidst the superheated water flowing out of the vents. There were tiny, elegant shrimp and agile octopus.

What made some of these life forms weird was not their looks, but how they survived. While most other organisms on earth depend on the sun to provide the basic energy needed for life, these animals survived on chemicals spewed from the earth's crust, and captured from the flowing water by bacteria that lived in harmony with the worms and other animals. Indeed, the "chemosynthetic" community -- which biologists dubbed The Rose Garden -- stunned biologists.

In 2002, on the 25th anniversary of the discovery, Alvin returned to the Rose Garden, only to discover that it had been paved over by a fresh lava flow. But in a testament to the tenacious grip of life, they found a new vent community forming nearby. Aptly, the new site has been named Rosebud.

Gargantuan Geology

The deep sea doesn't just have lows -- it has highs too. Researchers continue to be amazed by the massive mountain ranges hidden beneath the waves. A new generation of submersibles and mapping technologies is just now bringing these heady heights to light. New Zealand researchers, for instance, recently returned from a mapping mission that found nearly 50 new underwater volcanoes in the South Pacific. Some of these monsters would be major landmarks if high and dry: One is 40 miles in diameter and nearly 2 miles high.

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