Northern Ireland

Irish ship on expedition to map a new eco-system

Undersea vent
Image caption An example of an undersea vent

Ireland's State research ship, Celtic explorer, has embarked on an expedition to map a new underwater eco-system on the floor of the Atlantic sea.

The joint British and Irish mission is led by Dr Andy Wheeler from University College Cork.

It includes over 30 crew members and a National Geographic televison crew.

Speaking from the ship, he said: "We hope to find new species."

"We hope to find mussels, crabs, shrimps and other bacteria that have never been discovered before."

Located 1,000 miles west of Ireland, the Marine Institute vessel hopes to make it into Jules Verne territory.

British scientists on board the research vessel, James Cook, first detected the biological structure, located on the mid-Atlantic ridge three years ago.

The ridge is a 16,000 kilometre-long mountain range which extends between the Arctic and southern Africa.

Leaving Galway docks on Wednesday, it will take the group five days to reach this location.

"We will send a robotic camera system three kilometres below the sea surface to the sea bed onto an active volcanic system," Dr Wheeler said.

"We are interested in the nature of volcanic activity and the fast spreading of tectonic plates."

'Earth's orgins'

The mission intends to film the hydrothermal system and examine the cold-water coral Moira Mound reefs already designated as a special area of conservation.

Hydrothermal vents are areas on the sea floor where water heated by volcanic activity under the seabed gushes out and are commonly found in volcanically active areas.

Dr Wheeler said these large volumes of sea pumping through the ocean floor, which are also known as "black smokers", can be "up to 600 degrees celsuis".

Extreme life thrives in these areas by getting its food directly from the volcano.

Image caption The Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) Holland 1 and mini-ROV on board the Celtic Explorer.

"They are disconnected from the rest of life on the planet as they do not get energy from the sun", he added.

Professor John Gamble is the chair of geology at the University College of Cork.

He described the trip as a "jump into the abyss as no-one has been there before".

"A study of the unique eco-systems which exist around black smokers will hopefully show us more about the earth's origins," he said.

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