Questions and answers

Zaine Stenson, age 6, from Rock Creek Elementary in the USA, asks:

How long did it take you to find both of the trenches?

We didn't actually find trenches - what we found was undersea hot springs, called deep-sea vents, at the bottom of a trench. That took us just over a week, but we were helped by an American expedition that visited the area last year, and found the first signs of them in the area. When we sent down our underwater vehicle called HyBIS to film the ocean floor, it took us five hours to find the vents.

Mrs Noonan's Class, age 7, from Rock Creek Elementary in the USA, asks:

How wide across is the trench?

The valley containing the Mid-Cayman Spreading Centre, where we are working, is about 20 miles wide, 60 miles long and about 15000 feet deep (similar in size to the Grand Canyon, but formed by a different geological process).

Mrs Noonan's Class, age 7, from Rock Creek Elementary in the USA, asks:

How did you feel when you discovered the deepest trench in the world?

When we found the world's deepest known vents at the bottom of the Cayman Trough, we felt very excited - everyone cheered and some cried. It looked so beautiful as we saw the black smoker chimney appear in front of us.

Mrs Noonan's Class, age 7, from Rock Creek Elementary in the USA, asks:

How long did it take to go down to the bottom of the trench and back up again?

It took us 3 hours to get down to the seafloor from the ship. We could have gone faster, but there is always a danger our HyBIS underwater vehicle could spiral out of control. We then spent several hours searching the seafloor, and afterwards it took us two hours to return to the ship.

Sarah, age 7, from Rock Creek Elementary in the USA, asks:

What are you going to call the deepest ocean?

The deep-sea vents we've found are in the Caribbean Sea. We haven't decided on a name for this set of vents yet - but we will choose one soon.

Ian, age 14, from College Place Middle School in the USA, asks:

How can the micro-organisms survive those temperatures indefinitely?

The microbes that live at high temperatures (known as thermophiles) are specially adapted to cope with those conditions. Their enzymes - the molecular machines that carry out many of the living processes in cells - have different structures to normal, which allow them to withstand heat. In some cases, they also have special molecules inside their cells that help to stabilise their enzymes and other vital molecules from being broken down by high temperatures. And the membranes that form the outer layer of their cells sometimes have a different structure too, which allows them to withstand higher temperatures.

Logan, age 10, from Chase Lake Elementary in the USA, asks:

Is there any volcanic activity there? If yes, how often?

The whole of the ocean floor is created by volcanic activity. As the plates of the Earth's crust move apart at rifts like ours, part of the Earth’s underlying mantle melts. This molten rock rises to fill the gap between the plates, and erupts onto the seafloor to form underwater volcanoes.

Where the plates are moving apart slowly, like the Mid-Cayman Spreading Centre, the underwater volcanic eruptions don't take place all the time, but probably last for a few days or months every few hundred years.

The map of the seafloor that we've made using sonar actually shows thousands of tiny volcanic cones (about 100 to 500 yards across), as well as some large solidified lava flows extending for several miles. We know that these volcanic cones and lavas are relatively young, but we don't know whether any of them are erupting at the moment.

Spencer, age 10, from Chase Lake Elementary in the USA, asks:

Do you have any idea what is causing the rifts?

The rifts are caused by the movement of the huge plates that make up the Earth’s crust. These plates are rigid and tens of miles thick, and they slide around over the surface of the Earth. In some places (like the San Andreas Fault in California ) they slide past each other. Elsewhere they collide, to form deep-sea trenches (like the Marianas Trench). And in yet other places, they move apart, causing rifts, as in the Mid-Cayman Spreading Centre where we are working. As the plates separate, they stretch the crust until it breaks, forming what geologists call a fault. These faults allow the crust to drop down a short way, forming a rift like the underwater valley that we have been exploring.

Allie, age 9, from Chase Lake Elementary in the USA, asks:

Have you discovered any new creatures?

We can't say for sure yet, because we have to examine the creatures very carefully and compare them with others to see if they really are new. If you think about all the different kinds of pet cats that there are - such as tabby cats, or black-and-white longhair cats, or Siamese cats, for example - they look quite different but they are all the same species. So sometimes it can be quite hard to tell. But one way to find out is to compare their genetic code, which takes time in a laboratory back on land. That's what we'll be doing next.

But it's likely that some of the creatures we've found will turn out to be new. When you meet an animal more than two miles deep in the ocean, there is a fifty percent chance that it will be a creature that no-one has seen before. To imagine that, try flipping a coin to pretend you've just met an animal in the deep ocean - every time you get a 'head' from the coin toss, you've discovered a new creature. That's why the deep ocean is such an exciting place to work as a biologist.

Risa Schwartz, age 40, from in Mar Vista Elementary in the USA, asks:

Will you be posting pictures of all the new creatures you discover?

We're putting together a full picture of the marine life at the vents, and how it relates to life at vents elsewhere, which will then be presented as a scientific paper, which has to be checked by other scientists before we can share it with the world. But as soon as we've completed that process - which we have to follow as scientists - then we'll be posting the pictures, and video, of the creatures that we've found at the vents. So unfortunately we have to beg patience at the moment - but we hope the wait will be worth it!

Brooke Graver, age 8, from Caloundra City School in Queensland, Australia, asks:

Hi Sally what is it like on the ship so far? I would like to find out some interesting facts about all the animals you will see? What are you doing with all the technology that you are doing? I hope you are ok and have a great trip! By Brooke

It is really good on the ship so far. We have a cabin (a bedroom) each, which we have to keep tidy because the Captain checks it every week - and we are told off if it is untidy! There is plenty of lovely food and we can help ourselves to biscuits when we want to. We don't have a TV to watch programmes on, but we are working hard and so don't have time to watch TV.

There's plenty of technology on the ship, with computers for showing different things, such as where we are and how deep the sea is below us. We also have a submarine that goes on journeys under the water - no-one is in the submarine, so it tells us on a computer where it is. When it has finished its journey, we go and pick it up. You can see a video of this on the diary for 6th April.

We also another underwater machine called HyBIS, which travels to the bottom of the sea looking for interesting things to video, which we see on the ship at the same time We are also making maps of the seafloor so we know what it looks like. There are big mountains and big holes on the seafloor, and we have sent the submarine to have a look at these.

We can't say much about the animals we have found yet, because our discoveries have to be checked by other scientists first. But at the bottom of the ocean there are lots of different types of animals - some are like those you find on the seashore, like starfish. But others look very different, such as "comb jellies" - they look at bit like jellyfish, but they have rows of paddles on their bodies that catch the lights of HyBIS and look like rainbow colours.


Shane McCannell, age 6, from Pierson Elementary School in Manitoba, Canada, asks:

I am good at science, and would like to work on a research ship like yours. Can you tell me what school I would have to go to, and how many years would it take? It has been exciting watching what you do. I think the undersea vehicles would be very expensive. My uncle lived in Grand Cayman, so I have been very close to where you are.

If you keep working hard at science and maths and taking an interest in lots of different things, I'm sure you will be able to work on a research ship when you are older. Lots of schools teach chemistry, physics and biology, and you need those to start. Then you can choose what you like best and go to a college to specialise in your favourite subject.

In Canada there are excellent institutes specialising in ocean science in the University of Victoria in Vancouver, the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Nova Scotia, and the University of Montreal in Quebec. Studying at one of those after graduating from High School would usually take until you are in your early twenties - but there are opportunities to go to sea during that training.

We need all kinds of scientists to study the ocean - physicists, chemists and biologists - and engineers to design and build more advanced underwater vehicles. So whatever area interests you, there's a place in ocean exploration. The youngest person we have on board is 20 and the eldest is 65, so you can do this at any age once you are grown up.

Emmanuel Desmond Sesah Affresi, age 27, from the China University Of Petroleum, asks:

I think is a great job you guys are doing there. But I want to ask how safe are our drilling rigs on the seafloor. After reading your discovery of the deepest known volcanoes is there any hope?

Because the area where we find the deep-sea vents is volcanic, it's not an area where they are oil deposits, and so the volcanoes shouldn't pose any threat to underwater installations such as drilling rigs.

Ross Roark, age 14, of TA Howard Middle School in Texas, asks:

Have you found any shipwrecks? Do the deep sea animals live close to one another like they do on the shallow coral reefs? Are there lots of animals down there? Are you able to bring deep sea animals to the ship? Does the change in pressure hurt them? Are they able to live at the surface? I hope you have a safe trip.

We haven't found any shipwrecks on this expedition - that would be very exciting too. Deep-sea animals at vents tend to live close to one another, just like on shallow coral reefs. But away from vents, other deep-sea animals tend to live much further apart.

We can bring some animals alive to the surface from as deep as 2500 m. Animals are composed of tissue and water, so the change in pressure does not cause them to 'explode', because water is almost incompressible and does not expand. But they do not thrive at the surface, unless we keep them in special pressure chambers.

Animals from greater depths do not survive at the surface, and so we are very careful about collecting them, because we don't want to harm their populations. But we do need to collect a few so we can understand what species are living down there, and therefore better protect them in the future.

Laura Graff, age 23, from Virginia College, USA, asks:

My 5 yr old son has great interest of the ocean and sea life. He was wondering how you guys study the underwater volcanoes with only a camera and a robot. He also says hi.

Please say 'hi' back from our team on board! We can learn a lot with a camera and a robot. Photographs of the vents help us to identify the minerals that they are made of and the animals that live round them. They can also help us understand the kind of place where the vents form - is it over a volcano or a crack in the seafloor, for example? The robot can also take samples of rock and of the vent water, which we analyse back in the lab to work out how the vents work.

Art Capps, age 6, from Rural Point Elementary in the USA asks:

Will there ever be a mini sub that can go down into a black smoker, and if so, what would this mini sub be made of?

The openings of the vents are about the size of a fist, so they are too small for a sub that carries people. But a tiny robot sub might be able to fit. It would have to be able to withstand the high temperatures in the vent, and perhaps the best material to do that would be the metal titanium. Titanium is lighter than steel in weight, but very strong, and melts at 1725 degrees C, so it can withstand the conditions in a vent. Although we don't yet send robot subs into the openings of vents, we do put probes in there to measure the temperature - and those probes are made of titanium.

Matthew Megremis, age 23, from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, asks:

How can we find out more about the life you have discovered so deep in the ocean? (and more specifically, about the life you have found around the volcanic vent just discovered). I would love to read more about the details of your exploration. Do you have any published articles on your findings? Thank you very much for your time.

We've only just found these vents, so we haven't published any scientific papers on them yet - we'll need to analyse our data, and then have our findings checked by other scientists. So it will be a short while before we can talk about the life at these particular vents (hopefully in a few months time).

But until then, I can thoroughly recommend 'The Ecology of Deep-Sea Hydrothermal Vents' by our colleague ashore, Prof Cindy Van Dover, as an excellent book on the biology of deep-sea vents (and hopefully your University library should have a copy).

Mariah, age 17, from Saint Stephens High in the United States asks:

Was there only one vent found, or a cluster of them? Also, how does the temperature of the vents stay exceedingly high when it's so cold that far down?

We've found a cluster of vents, spread over an area about the size of a football field. And the water from the vents is kept hot because it passes through hot rock deep in the Earth's crust - in fact, it's at least 1000 degrees C down in the 'reaction zone' beneath the vents, and continually heated by magma below.

Troy, age 43, from Florida Memorial University in the USA asks:

Do you also have a team page for the folks who operate the ship? I would think they have a place too? Thanks for the good science coming from your voyages!

We could not do the science we do without all their hard work and support. The ship is their home, and we are their guests. But consequently they also deserve some privacy at home. They do have their own ship's website, at, but unfortunately its webmaster is not aboard at the moment to update it during this expedition. So we've tried to feature the crew and their vital role throughout our diary pages.

Ryan Lee, age 15, from Siglap Secondary School in Singapore asks:

The ocean floor should be constantly changing in topology - due to the earth's plates rubbing against each other. Why apply so much investigative efforts mapping its surface? What's so exciting discovering these new geo-thermal creations?

You are quite right that plate tectonics constantly changes the detailed shape of the seafloor, which is known as its topography (topology is a little different). Those changes usually take place over very long timescales, so mapping the seafloor allows us to deduce how those changes are taking place - and those are the processes that shape our planet. So it's only by mapping the seafloor that we can get a complete picture and understanding of geological processes that affect us, from volcanic eruptions to earthquakes.

Deep-sea vents are part of a system where seawater enters the Earth's crust and reacts with the rocks at depth. The hot brine can dissolve some minerals - such as copper, manganese and iron - and redeposit them on the seafloor, or add them in dissolved form to the ocean water. So by studying them, we can better understand how ore bodies on land are formed, which people mine for metals that we use in our everyday lives.

At the same time, some elements from the ocean, such as sodium, are put back in the crust by the reactions that drive the vents. So studying the vents helps us understand what controls the saltiness of the oceans, which is part of how our planet works and supports life. Finally, the vents are hosts for entire ecological systems of animals that ultimately live on the chemical energy brought up by the vents, rather than the sun's energy that supports most life via photosynthesis. It's even possible that life began at such hydrothermal vents, and could exist in such places elsewhere in the cosmos, for example on Jupiter's moon, Europa.

Robert Arnold, age 37, from Northeast State in the USA asks:

What areas of research (other than discovery) are you using to explore the ocean? For example; what role is the computer playing on board the ship? Are you at this time hoping that anything might lead to human medical medicine?

Our work brings together the fields of physics (both in oceanography, and in geophysics), chemistry, geology and biology, along with mechanical, electronic and software engineering.

We have 27 computers in our main lab alone, which are all part of the ship's computer network. They are central to our research, allowing us to share and analyse the data that all our sensors and vehicles collect. As a result we have a computer specialist aboard who looks after all the systems and the network.

Although we are not looking specifically for medical compounds, we hope any samples we collect might be of use to pharmacological researchers. There are several new medical treatments already in development based on compounds found in deep-sea organisms.

Michelle Poethkow, age 33, from the USA asks:

I am very much interested in deep sea exploration and would love a chance to get involved in a team. I have no experience and no degrees what would be the best way to get involved? I am a very fast learner and love to explore the deep. Everyone always wants to explore space when we haven't even begun to explore Earth. Any advice would be much appreciated.

It's never too late to learn, and you can study ocean sciences or engineering as a mature student. Alternatively, you could also look at joining a research ship as a crew member - there are a wide variety of skills and roles involved in deep-sea expeditions.

Audrey, age 10, from Chase Lake Elementary in the US, asks:

Does anything live inside the vents (instead of just near them)? Like on the inside wall?

Thank you for your question, Audrey. So far no-one has found anything living on the inside walls of the hottest black smoker vents, because the conditions there are hotter than 270 degrees C (which is 518 degrees F). At those temperatures, some of the molecules that make up living cells break down, so it seems unlikely that even micro-organisms can live there.

But there are microbes that live inside the porous rock of vent chimneys where conditions are a bit cooler (just not on the inner wall where the hot vent fluid is rushing past). The record-holder is a microbe that can live at temperatures hotter than 120 degrees C (that's 250 degrees F). Here's a National Geographic article about it.

Not all vents are as hot as the black smokers, however. Sometimes, where the vent fluid either loses heat on its way to the surface or mixes with cold seawater, you get vents that erupt "shimmering water" rather than "black smoke". The shimmering water, which we call "diffuse flow", looks like the heat haze you get above a road on a hot day, and it has a similar temperature to a hot bath (40 to 60 degrees C). This means that those particular vents are cool enough to have microbes living inside them.

There are two main kinds of microbes at deep-sea vents: bacteria, and another group of single-celled organisms called Archaea. The Archaea tend to be the tougher lifeforms that can withstand the higher temperatures. They may also be some of the most ancient lifeforms on Earth - their name, Archaea, comes from the Greek word for "ancient".

It's likely that there are Archaea out there that can withstand even higher temperatures than the current record-holder - and the only way to find out is to visit deep-sea vents and look for them.

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Find out more about the Cayman Trough, undersea volcanoes, deep-sea vents,
and the inhabitants of the abyss.
What are we investigating?


Take a tour of our research ship and our undersea vehicles, sensors and systems for exploring the ocean floor.
What are we using?


Meet the people aboard the ship: biologists and geologists, professors and students, engineers and mariners.
Who are we?