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A Real-World Steampunk Explorer

A scientist (and steampunk fan) probes remote ocean depths in search of strange creatures

Tuesday, January 28, 2020
Dr. Jones in the submersible
Photo: WHOI

“I glimpsed a whole world of unknown animals sheltering in mysterious refuges, with the submarine vessel as one of their congeners, living, moving, formidable like them.”—Professor Aronnax, in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

I’m an environmental microbiologist, fascinated by microscopic life in extreme environments. I’m also a steampunk fan. Science and steampunk share a sense of exploration, exuberant discovery, and invention for its own sake. The desire to explore the weird corners of the world is why I became a scientist, and why I feel at so home among my fellow eccentrics.

This is how I found myself aboard the Research Vessel Atlantis, headed for a vast underwater mountain range known as the East Pacific Rise.

Expeditions like these are expensive, upwards of $500,000 per day, and collected samples can represent years-long experiments. You can’t afford to mess up or waste time. Such intense work makes tea breaks all the more important!

Processing my precious samples required a laboratory on board, which meant bringing everything from paper towels to chemicals. I’d be seven days from land, and if something broke or ran out, the expedition for me would be over. So for key items, as per ocean expedition wisdom, I brought backups.

The ship departed Manzanillo, Mexico on Dec. 17 with 20 scientists, 12 vehicle operators, and 23 crewmembers. Our destination was around 2,000 miles off the coast of Panama, site of a hydrothermal vent field about one-and-a-half miles beneath the ocean surface.

Research Vessel Atlantis
R/V Atlantis. Photo: Shawn Arenello

“What goes on in those distant depths? What creatures inhabit, or could inhabit, those regions twelve or fifteen miles beneath the surface of the water? It’s almost beyond conjecture.”—Professor Aronnax

Few locations on Earth are weirder or more remote than the deep seabed. We have more accurate maps of Mars than we do the deep oceans of our own planet.

To get there, our expedition used Alvin, a human-operated submersible. Diving took me to towering chimneys of rock, built by nature from the complex chemistries of superheated water escaping the seams of continental plates. The seafloor, carpeted in obsidian, glittered in the submersible’s headlights.

Pressure is 250 times greater than on the surface, meaning that water never boils even when it spews at more than 300 degrees Celsius (that’s 572 degrees Fahrenheit).

Alvin the submersible
Alvin hoovers up vent animal larvae. Photo: WHOI

Life here exists independently of the sun, relying on rock-eating microbes for sustenance. Strange, often nameless creatures, such as 2-foot worms and swarms of amphipods (distant relatives of beach sand hoppers), cover the vent chimneys.

In these remote waters, it is common to discover species new to science. On this expedition, we discovered and named new dead vent structures. We encountered creatures not seen at this location for upwards of 10 years. In a small way, we gave greater detail to the map of the world.

These mad expeditions no longer get triumphant news coverage. Instead, we share our experiences on Twitter and Instagram. Now the expedition is over, and the true work begins. Our data and samples will help us understand how deep-sea volcanoes behave. We will learn more about the limits of life on earth. This in turn helps us understand how life may have begun in the distant past, and where we might look for extraterrestrial life on the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

You can see more photos from the expedition in the gallery below.

Rose M. Jones, Ph.D. is a postdoctoral scientist in the Department of Soil, Water and Climate at the University of Minnesota. She describes herself as an “extremophile geobiologist, biogeochemist and astrobiologist on land and at sea.” You can learn more about her work on her website or by following her on Twitter: @DrRoseJones.

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