Exciting Discovery of Deep-sea Seeps off the East Coast of Trinidad and Tobago

Lecturer at The University of the West Indies (UWI) St. Augustine, Dr. Judith F. Gobin was part of a team of international scientists that made the exciting discovery of four new deep-sea cold seeps approximately 130km off the East coast of Trinidad and Tobago this week. Hundreds of thousands of 8-inch-long deep-sea mussels, metre-long tubeworms, pink shrimp, snails and fish were found living around the seeps at 1200m depth.

Chemosynthetic Bathymodiolus mussels with Alvinocaris shrimp and amphipods.

Chemosynthetic Bathymodiolus mussels with Alvinocaris shrimp and amphipods.

This is the first time that local scientists have taken part in a deep-sea science mission in T&T and the first time an entire expedition was broadcast live on the Internet. The expedition was led by US-based seafloor exploration non-profit, the Ocean Exploration Trust (OET).

Dr. Gobin, lecturer in Marine Ecology/Coastal Ecosystems Management in the Department of Life Sciences, was selected to join the seven-day deep-sea exploratory mission on board the Exploration Vessel (E/V) Nautilus from October 2 to 9, 2014. Dr. Diva Amon, a fellow Trinidadian and deep-sea biologist, currently working at the University of Hawaii, was also a member of the science team.

Dr. Diva Amon (left) and Dr. Judith Gobin (right) measuring some of the Bathymodiolus mussels sampled from the cold seeps.

Dr. Diva Amon (left) and Dr. Judith Gobin (right) measuring some of the Bathymodiolus mussels sampled from the cold seeps.

Cold seeps are areas where fluids rich in methane and hydrogen sulphide seep from the seafloor. This fluid provides the energy to sustain extensive communities of life in the lightless, hot and high pressure conditions that exist in the deep sea. At cold seeps, bacteria create organic carbon via chemosynthesis in the absence of light, using the chemicals in the fluid in a similar way to how plants use sunlight at the sea surface for photosynthesis. These microbes use the oxygen in seawater to oxidise the chemicals present in the seep fluids and form the basis of a deep-sea food chain. The bacteria form thick white mats or live endosymbiotically (inside) species of mussels, tubeworms and clams, providing food directly. Other organisms such as snails and shrimp seen at the new sites may feed directly on the bacterial mats, in turn providing food for eelpout fish, crabs and other predators.

An overview of one of the cold seep sites found off Trinidad and Tobago.

An overview of one of the cold seep sites found off Trinidad and Tobago.

“I am extremely excited to have been part of this expedition, which has discovered several new cold-seep sites and accompanying seep communities, as well as to be doing this cutting-edge exploration and science in Trinidad and Tobago’s waters,” said Dr. Gobin. “The deep-sea environment holds the key to understanding how life exists and is sustained under these extreme conditions.”

Dr. Amon hopes that this is just the beginning for deep-sea science in T&T, especially given the large deep-sea resources of oil and natural gas in our country’s waters. Although French scientists worked in areas close-by in the late 1980s, this was the first time local scientists have taken part, and the first time the entire expedition was broadcasted live on the Internet.

Dr. Gobin expects to collaborate with Dr. Amon, as well as other team members of the Ocean Exploration Trust towards continued research and exploration of T&T’s exciting and unexplored deep seas in the future. She was extremely happy for the opportunity to fly The UWI flag, and with Dr. Amon, the T&T flag. She expressed her gratitude to the Government of Trinidad and Tobago, especially the Ministry of Energy and Energy Affairs, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Transport and the Maritime Services Division, and thanked the OET and the E/V Nautilus crew for the amazing opportunity.

Dr. Judith Gobin (left) and Dr. Diva Amon (right) in front of ROV Hercules

Dr. Judith Gobin (left) and Dr. Diva Amon (right) in front of ROV Hercules

Dr. Gobin was previously on board the ship in 2013 exploring the submarine volcano, Kick’em Jenny, off Grenada. That expedition also proved extremely exciting with the discovery of new cold-seep environments. This year, the team again returned to those sites from September 26 to October 1, where they discovered several more cold seeps harbouring the largest specimens of Bathymodiolus mussels known to science, including the largest at 36.6cm.

The E/V Nautilus is a 64m research vessel operated by Dr. Robert Ballard and his Ocean Exploration Trust team. The ship carries with it two Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) named Hercules and Argus which explore the seafloor and can be viewed in real-time online. The EV Nautilus can be followed in real-time via www.nautiluslive.org and for more information on OET, please visit: www.oceanexplorationtrust.com

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