Hydrothermal Exploration of the Mid-Cayman Rise

Throughout the month of June 2013, a team of oceanographers and astrobiologists continued their systematic exploration of one of the deepest points in the Caribbean Sea, searching for life in extreme seafloor environments. Using the hybrid underwater robotic vehicle Nereus, these scientists extended their investigations throughout the depths of the Mid-Cayman Rise, which reaches to more than 6,500 meters (~4 miles) deep.

The study area, also known as the Mid-Cayman Spreading Center, is one of Earth’s deepest and slowest-spreading mid-ocean ridges—regions where two of Earth’s tectonic plates are ripped apart and new material wells up from the Earth’s interior. There, our scientists searched for and sampled new hydrothermal vent systems—natural, seafloor plumbing systems where cold seawater circulates down into the hot, freshly-formed oceanic crust releasing heat and mineral-rich fluids at the seafloor that support complex ecosystems of exotic organisms.

By exploring this extreme and previously uninvestigated section of the Earth’s deep seafloor, this research seeks to extend our understanding of the limits (in terms of extreme environments) to which life can exist on Earth, to understand how geologic processes might generate the prebiotic materials believed to have been an essential pre-cursor to life on Earth, and to help prepare for future efforts to explore for life on other planets.

R/V Falkor supported a broad variety of scientific operations during the two legs of this cruise, including CTD casts, multibeam mapping, operation of an add-on HROV Nereus in both AUV (during Leg 1) and ROV modes (during Leg 2) for high resolution vent site mapping, chemical and physical data collection at vent sites, interactive research at vent sites, observation and sampling of associated biological communities, and satellite teleoperations with shore-side scientists. Leg 1 left port in St. Petersburg, FL May 30 and concluded in George Town, Grand Cayman on June 16, 2013. After a personnel change and transition of Nereus into ROV-mode, Leg 2 left George Town June 19 and return to port June 30, 2013. During Leg 2, video from Nereus dives was viewable online during scheduled live events. The live event schedule was posted and updated here.


Data & Publications

The resulting shipboard dataset is being stored at the Rolling Deck to Repository and is now available.

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