Below the Caribbean Sea lies the deepest hydrothermal vent yet found. At 5000 metres down, the black smoker is 800 metres deeper than its rivals. Despite that it teems with life, including microbial mats, spiny anemones and swarms of a previously unknown species of shrimp that sees using a light sensor on its back.
"Away from the vents, life is very sparse indeed in this part of the world," says Jon Copley at the University of Southampton, UK, who led the expedition with Douglas Connelly of Southampton's National Oceanography Centre. "We came across pretty barren sea floor and then suddenly, bang: you are right in the middle of this really lush colony of deep-sea creatures."
The group first became aware of this Caribbean deep-sea sauna when they scanned the area for chemicals using an autonomous vehicle. They then deployed a second programmable underwater vehicle to investigate the habitat.
The deepest vent was found in the heart of a volcanic rift, but the team also found an unusual vent encased in an undersea mountain some distance away from the ridge. Together these two vent sites provide an isolated lab for researchers to study the migration of vent creatures.
"Venting may be more common around the globe than previously considered," says Alex Rogers of the University of Oxford. "We are in an exciting phase of exploration of these ecosystems, where deeper or more remote vents are being sampled. Previous conceptions about vent ecology and biogeography are being found to be overly simple."