A team of researchers led by Dr. Jon Copley were given £462 000 by the Natural Environment Research Council to explore the Cayman Trough. The researchers are planning two expeditions over three years using the English research vessel RRS James Cook. From the RRS James Cook, the research team will send a brand new, autonomous-operated vehicle called Autosub6000 into the trench (which means it can carry out missions on its own without being controlled), as well as the remotely-operated vehicle, Isis.
The research team is specifically looking for new geological features and species of marine life. Along with the ROV submarine, the team will also use whale-friendly sonar to map and chart the undersea volcanoes, while hunting for volcanic vents previously unknown. Other factors being observed will be the study of deep ocean currents in the Cayman Trough.
Before North and South American joined three million years ago, there was a deep-water passage from the Pacific to Atlantic, the remains of which are the Cayman Trough. It is believed that there could be keys to the similarities or difference between oceanic species, a “missing link” in a chain of events.
Volcanic vents in the Atlantic are home to blind shrimp and beds of unusual mussels, whereas similar deep-sea vents in the eastern Pacific are inhabited by tubeworms. Little is known about either of these ecosystems, but researchers are curious to find out if the creatures living in the Cayman Trough are related to those in the Pacific or Atlantic – or completely different to both.
The deep ocean is the largest ecosystem on our planet, and understanding life and its patterns in this alien environment are integral to the health of our planet. We have also gained new cancer treatments, and fibre-optic cables, both thanks to deep-sea research.
Continuing to explore the deep, and gaining understanding of the ocean and creatures that live within it, potentially can unlock mysteries and benefit humans, will we be kind enough to give back what we take?