Somewhere deep in the Gulf of California, a hi-tech underwater device is analyzing the bottom of the sea. Launched by scientists associated with a non-profit organization called the Schmidt Ocean Institute, this appliance is about to record something incredible. You see, a bizarre ecosystem is flourishing down here. Yet the conditions defining this part of the ocean are notably extreme.
The Schmidt Ocean Institute has been active for over a decade now, having been established in 2009. Set up by Eric and Wendy Schmidt, the organization’s primary aim is to drive scientific knowledge of the ocean forward. To do so, it makes use of various resources at its disposal, from sophisticated gadgets to a large ship.
Now, the institute’s first research ship was retired back in 2012, but its replacement is still active to this day. This is the R/V Falkor, a vessel which actually had its part to play in the incredible discovery in the Gulf of California in 2018. Yes, it was aboard this large craft, in fact, that scientists made their find.
In any case, it should come as no surprise that the institute decided to work in the Gulf of California. After all, it’s believed to be one of the most biologically diverse sea areas on Earth, supporting over 5,000 types of microscopic invertebrates. In fact, chunks of the gulf have actually been designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Moving on, the Gulf of California is situated between mainland Mexico and the Baja California Peninsula. And the peninsula is a strip of land home to a pair of Mexican states called Baja California and Baja California Sur. At its surface, the gulf spans something close to 62,000 square miles. Sections of the sea are rather deep, close to 10,000 feet in places.
Interestingly, the Gulf of California is believed to be quite a recent formation in geological terms. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), it’s probably between five and ten million years old. Furthermore, it’s still developing, and this could have implications down the line. For instance, there are those who believe that the Baja California Peninsula could one day actually separate from the mainland.
Crucially, the gulf itself covers the northern part of a range of submerged mountains known as the East Pacific Rise. This is a vast network of underwater ridges, located in the southeast of the Pacific Ocean. Here, hot magma rises up from the center of the Earth and causes the surface to breach. This creates features known as spreading centers.
Now you see, spreading centers are highly volcanically active, meaning that lava ultimately ends up covering great sections of the ocean floor. Indeed, this process is very much at the heart of the East Pacific Rise’s development. But to add to this, the hot lava also leads to another interesting formation coming into being.
As water travels down through the fissures on the ocean floor, it’s exposed to the intensely hot temperatures of the lava. This causes it to heat and rise back up through the seafloor, creating an outlet known as a hydrothermal vent. Now, there are many of these along the bottom of the Gulf of California.
And it can be said that hydrothermal vents are extremely interesting features for ocean scientists to study. It’s not all that difficult to figure out why this might be the case. You see, intricate ecosystems made up of a variety of different organisms can be observed in and around these formations.
You see, our understanding of life has generally been based around the idea that the sun provides organisms with energy. Yet the sun’s light is unable to reach the deepest parts of our oceans. So, if that’s the case, how can it be that certain organisms are able to survive near hydrothermal vents?
Well, it has something to do with a process called chemosynthesis. You see, water spewing from a hydrothermal vent tends to contain a great deal of minerals. And these minerals are enough to allow certain bacteria to survive. These so-called chemoautotrophic bacteria are able to create organic material through chemosynthesis. As a result, tiny crustaceans are then able to feed on it.
Remarkably, a better understanding of hydrothermal vents and how they support life could have implications which go far beyond our world. Indeed, it’s suspected that the features can also be found on certain moons orbiting the planets Jupiter and Saturn. So given what we can see in the oceans suggests a possibility of extraterrestrial life on these moons.
But back on our planet, it was an interest in hydrothermal vents which led the Schmidt Ocean Institute scientists to travel to the Gulf of California. Eager to learn as much as possible, experts from different fields went on the excursion. And the focus of their work was on a particular part of the gulf called the Pescadero Basin.
Now, the Pescadero Basin is an interesting spot. And it can be defined as something of a dent along the gulf’s floor, the outcome of a spreading center’s action. The basin is connected to a pair of faults known as the northern Atl Fault and the southern Pescadero Fault.
And back in 2015 a team of experts associated with MBARI made a wonderful discovery in the Pescadero Basin. Here, at the bottom of the seabed, they noted a number of hydrothermal vents which had never previously been recorded. Together, these fascinating and unique vents make up the wider Auka vent field.
In the wake of this discovery, the institute’s own researchers took note. After all, they wanted to see and investigate the Auka vent field for themselves. But on top of that, they had an inkling that more undiscovered vents could be found in the area. And so, they set off themselves.
So the institute’s operation was led by Dr. David Caress, Dr. Victoria Orphan and Dr. Robert Zierenberg. Dr. Caress is an expert from MBARI, while the other investigators are from the California Institute of Technology and the University of California Davis, respectively. Them aside, others from both American and Mexican academic institutions completed the team.
Sailing upon the institute’s R/V Falkor, the group utilized sophisticated technologies to complete their tasks. Yes, they employed an autonomous underwater vehicle to explore the ocean floor, as well as another directly controlled vehicle to help map it. Various sonar, laser and imaging tools were deployed to do this.
As the group had suspected, it turns out that the Pescadero Basin boasts more vent fields than just Auka. Indeed, the team discovered another field entirely. An underwater world of stunning beauty and wonder which they decided to christen Jaich Maa. On that note, let’s find out more.
In terms of its make-up and organisms, Jaich Maa appears to be quite similar to Auka. But it’s a dazzling place, containing a cave made of calcite and a sizable vent which researchers have dubbed Tay Ujaa. This calcite formation contained glistening water when discovered by the team. Furthermore, it featured an “upside-down waterfall,” caused by hot liquids leaking from a vent and merging together upwards below the cave’s lip. The same phenomenon produced visually stunning “upside-down lakes.”
Now, the names of the Auka and Jaich Maa vent fields and some of their features were not chosen lightly. Indeed, the institute’s researchers claimed that they make such decisions carefully. In this case, they referenced languages spoken locally on the Baja California Peninsula in christening their discoveries.
This particular means of naming the discoveries in the Pescadero Basin emerged after Auka was first discovered in 2015. But as for Jaich Maa specifically, this translates into English as something like “liquid metal.” This relates to the glistening minerals which define the stunning vent field. Tay Ujaa, meanwhile, means “big cave.”
So the sparkly minerals of Jaich Maa have ended up resting at the top of caves found there, forming “upside-down lakes.” And the hydrothermal vents that litter the area are themselves made of calcite. This mineral was once in liquid form, when heated up to an immense maximum temperature of almost 550 °F.
Furthermore, both Auka and Jaich Maa are stunning, as the institute’s Bekah Shepard detailed in November 2018. She said, “Holes in the seafloor gushing high temperature fluids, steaming hot sediments laden with orange-colored oil and the rotten-egg stink of sulfide, mineral flanges stretching horizontally like tabletops channeling hydrothermal fluids into upside-down lakes and waterfalls.” She added, “The Pescadero hydrothermal vent fields boast a dramatic and intimate beauty.”
What’s more, the operations at the Pescadero Basin have been important in demonstrating the potential of cutting edge technologies. Yes, the autonomous underwater vehicle supplied by MBARI was particularly useful in finding Jaich Maa. This contraption spent several hours moving through the waters, creating a map of the area.
And the process of mapping this underwater region also led to other discoveries. Yes, a new spreading center exhibiting signs of activity was picked up by the researchers. As work continues, and more information from the area is analyzed, other features are sure to emerge, too.
As we’ve already touched on, hydrothermal vents release liquids which can reach an incredibly high temperature of around 550 °F. Such conditions, it should go without saying, are particularly extreme. But they also serve to reflect the true character of the Pescadero Basin which defines the area.
Furthermore, analysis of the temperatures at Auka in particular will help researchers to better understand the “plumbing” of the heating system beneath. In time, such work will hopefully inform the experts of how deep lava lies beneath the seabed. It’ll also potentially indicate the direction with which heat and hot material travel in the underwater region.
Of course, much work still needs to be done before these discovered vent fields are clearly understood. In fact, even recordings and tests of the area will take some time to fully analyze. Nonetheless, the investigations that have already taken place have pointed towards some interesting finds.
For instance, it seems that the hydrothermal vents are actually home to various organisms. Indeed, because of the intense heat released by the vents, certain creatures are thriving in the area. These include anemones, oasisia tubeworms and scale worms which appear to exhibit a blue hue.
Apparently, the institute’s experts noted some unexpected actions from some of these underwater creatures. For example, a pair of scale worms seemed to interact in a strange manner which scientists don’t fully understand. So continued study of these creatures will hopefully reveal more soon. And then there’s the one that was, oddly, colored blue.
That’s right, the scientists took note of a microbe which appeared to be blue. Yet the reason for this shading isn’t clear. But some theories suggest that the organism had been exposed to certain minerals or bacteria which made it blue. Another suggestion is that blue naturally occurs in the microbe due to pigmentation.
Anyway, the researchers have taken samples of the sediments found in the Pescadero Basin vent fields. And with that, it’s hoped that more can be learned from the microbes contained within. For example, what are the hottest temperatures they can actually survive in given where they were found?
All this work is very important, especially when we consider how little is actually known about our sea floor environments. In fact, it’s on record that a mere ten percent of the Earth’s seabed has been investigated. With this in mind, we might infer that more discoveries aren’t far away.
In fact, Dr. Robert Zierenberg elaborated on this notion. He said, “The deep ocean is still one of the least explored frontiers in the Solar System. Maps of our planet are not as detailed as those of Mercury, Venus, Mars or the Moon, because it is hard to map underwater. This is the frontier.”
But things are now looking a little more promising, considering the cutting edge tech utilized in this operation. With new means of mapping out underwater areas being demonstrated, it’s an exciting time for researchers in this field. And already, scientists are receiving new information which should help build a clearer picture of what’s happening on our ocean floor.
Yes, and we can presently say that the Pescadero Basin is a crucial place for conducting such research. After all, the discoveries being made there are ultimately contributing to an understanding of other underwater areas around the world. Moreover, the study of life and habitats in these areas may have huge ramifications.
As researcher Jennifer Paduan went on to emphasize about the basin, “The hydrothermal structures here are beautiful. The animals and the bacteria that are supported by the vents are different [here] because the chemistry of the fluids is different than the usual sulfide type chimneys.”
So as things stand, scientists are only beginning to comprehend the nature of the Pescadero Basin vent fields. Both Auka and Jaich Maa are intriguing sites, but studies into them are ongoing. As the institute’s Bekah Shepard wrote in 2018, “Our scientific team is unanimous in the belief that this area deserves a great deal more investigation.”