Researcher Short Articles


My PhD: Continuation of a childhood obsession

By Laura Hepburn - University of Southampton

Violent plumes of hot, metal-rich, seawater are released into the ocean at tectonic boundaries in the Earth’s crust through hydrothermal vents akin, in appearance, to underwater volcanoes. Hydrothermal vents are deep-sea oases, teeming with diverse animals found nowhere else on Earth.

I still remember the first time I came across them. Aged eleven, I stood in our local aquarium engrossed by a photograph of gnarled, ochre-coloured chimneys issuing plumes of dense ‘black smoke’. Bizarre animals, the likes of which I had never seen before, were clamouring over one another in a desperate attempt to reach the dark, writhing plume.

Thirteen years later I’m sat in a cold, dark shipping container on the back of the ‘Royal Research Ship – James Cook’ in the Southern Ocean as a first-year PhD student. This particular container has been modified into a hi-tech laboratory currently controlling the movements of our unmanned, deep-sea submersible ‘ISIS’. Thirty television monitors relay the live images and scientific measurements recorded by ISIS as it navigates the barren seabed nearly a mile below, hunting for the telltale signs of a vent.

Hydrothermal systems have not yet been discovered in this part of the world, mainly due to the technical challenges posed by extreme weather conditions south of the Antarctic Polar Front. I’ve been watching monotonous seabed since my ‘watch shift’ began nearly four hours ago. Then ISIS turns around. Suddenly our monitors are engulfed in a thick plume of black smoke and we can’t see a thing. Carefully our pilots manoeuvre ISIS into position and there it is. A magnificent chimney stands proud of the seabed billowing 180°C fluid: stalked barnacles that look like strange lollipops wave majestically at the top of chimney; hairy-chested crabs scramble over one another for prime position closest to the oozing fluid; dark, inanimate patches of chimney turn out to be a large group of snails; while predatory starfish and anenomes wait patiently below to catch any stray creatures that wander too far from the safety of the warm vent fluid.

I sit motionless; spellbound once more by that magical scene that seemed so alien to me all those years ago. In that moment it strikes me that at the heart of every scientist is a small, inquisitive child fixated with mind-blown awe by the incredible world around them.

Me during a brisk morning stroll along the deck, in front of South Georgia.