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Dawn in the Deep
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Photograph by Stephen Low, SLP   
By Richard A. Lutz
Photographs by  Stephen Low Productions and Emory Kristof

It's always night in the world of sea vents—until a film crew summons the power to illuminate the abyss.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

A handful of scientists and filmmakers hatched a plan to show the bizarre world of hydrothermal vents as it's never been seen before. They took a huge IMAX camera and 4,400 watts of light to the bottom of the sea—then flipped the switch. . . .

Peering through the porthole of a submersible is like looking at outer space with a flashlight. You can't see much. But rigged with high-intensity movie lights, a sub becomes a deep-sea Hubble, revealing such eccentric beauties as the teetering spires of a sulfide chimney or spiny brisingid sea stars combing currents for food. Along with the National Science Foundation and Stephen Low Productions, a team of scientists is helping create an IMAX-format film to show in unrivaled detail the riches of hydrothermal vents—ecosystems that may hold clues to early life on Earth.

*  * * * * *

Late one night in December 2000, as the research vessel Atlantis towed a camera some 2,300 feet (700 meters) below the surface of the Atlantic, geologist Debbie Kelley and colleagues spotted a snow-white chimney in water shimmering with heat. Exploring by sub, the team discovered a "redwood forest" of spires, one nearly 200 feet (60 meters) tall. They named the site Lost City—an entirely new type of hydrothermal vent field, where active chimneys emit water heated to a relatively cool 100°F (40°C) to 170°F (80°C). This heat results from a chemical reaction between water and a subcrustal rock called peridotite. When the alkaline solution emerges, calcium carbonate crystallizes, building shapes like stalagmites.

Until Lost City was found, most known deep-sea vents sprang from young, volcanically active regions such as mid-ocean ridges, where sulfide chimneys expel water as hot as 760°F (400°C). Yet Lost City's formations lie nine miles from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge on 1.5-million-year-old rock in an alkaline environment that may be similar to that of early Earth.

Other than dense mats of microbes, life at Lost City is sparse but for an occasional wreckfish. When we visited to film the site, we were moved by the monochromatic beauty of its carbonate chimneys. One three-story tower stood like a solemn cathedral, lost at sea.

*  * * * * *

"Humans hate darkness," says filmmaker Stephen Low. "To inspire people to care about the deep ocean, we had to light it." That took some doing. Low and Emory Kristof—veterans of filming the Titanic wreck—along with sub pilots from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution outfitted Alvin for the task. Eight 400-watt lights and a 1,200-watt boom-mounted spotlight threw light 150 feet (45 meters) out into the water, an amazing distance. That light took a lot of juice. "We were just at the edge of running out of power," recalls Bill Reeve, Low's director of photography. Quarters were tight: Only a filmmaker and pilot could fit aboard Alvin; the third seat was filled by the IMAX camera. Because it also hogged the main viewport, pilots navigated by viewing TV monitors. "It was the pits," says pilot Pat Hickey, who had to avoid the scalding black smokers.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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VIDEO Photographer Emory Kristof sheds light on the superheated environs of deep-sea vents.

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Dive down to the ocean floor with deep-sea submersible Alvin and discover the otherworldly environment of the "Lost City" described in the text excerpt at left.

Videography by Stephen Low, SLP

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The recent study of deep-sea vents reveals that surrounding life is based on chemosynthesis, the conversion of chemical energy into biomass, rather than photosynthesis, which converts light into biomass. Such a discovery broadens the search for life in the universe. Do you think such life exists? Join the discussion.


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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
The discovery of Earth's deep-ocean hydrothermal vents with their chemosynthesis-based ecosystems has not only led to new discoveries about life on Earth, it may also lead to the discovery of life in space. 

One of the life-forms found around deep-ocean vents is a group of microbes that falls into a category carrying the unwieldy name chemoautotrophs. These microbes live on inorganic materials in the hot fluids escaping from vent outlets and have no need for the oxygen found in ocean water. Many biologists speculate they may be representative of the earliest forms of life on Earth. This, in turn, has led astrobiologists to consider that sites in space with similar conditions may be likely places to look for life beyond Earth. 

Europa, one of Jupiter's four major moons, seems to meet most of the requirements. The Galileo mission to Jupiter found evidence that beneath Europa's thick ice crust there is probably a saltwater ocean kept warm by the friction of massive gravitational pulls and twists from Jupiter and its other moons. This heating by gravitational forces may even create enough warmth to melt Europa's rocky mantle. If so, it's not unlikely that hydrothermal vents, and perhaps even life, could be found by future exploration.

—Patricia B. Kellogg

Did You Know?

Related Links
NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory Vents Program
This website from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration examines the chemistry and geology of deep-sea hydrothermal vents. It links to NOAA's Ocean Explorer program website, one of the most extensive oceanography sites on the Internet.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
The Woods Hole website offers resources that range from lesson plans to tales of scientists fending off pirate attacks. This is a terrific resource for all things oceanographic.

Stephen Low Company
Follow the expedition log during 25 days at sea during the filming of Voyage into the Abyss, Stephen Low's large-format film about a deep-sea expedition and the experiences of its science team.


Forman, Will. The History of American Deep Submersible Operations: 1775-1995. Best Publishing Company, 1999.

Van Dover, Cindy Lee. The Ecology of Deep-Sea Hydrothermal Vents. Princeton University Press, 2000.

Van Dover, Cindy Lee. The Octopus's Garden: Hydrothermal Vents and Other Mysteries of the Sea. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1996.


NGS Resources
Ballard, Robert D. "Adventures in Ocean Exploration: From the Discovery of the Titanic to the Search for Noah's Flood," National Geographic Books, 2001.

Lutz, Richard A. "Deep Sea Vents: Science at the Extreme," National Geographic (October 2000), 116-127.

Gordon, David George. "Explosions From the Deep," National Geographic World (June 2000), 18-21.

Lutz, Richard A., and Rachel M. Haymon."Rebirth of a Deep-sea Vent," National Geographic (November 1994), 114-126.

Rona, Peter A. "Deep-Sea Geysers of the Atlantic," National Geographic (October 1992), 104-109.

"Pacific Ocean Map Supplement," National Geographic (June 1992).

Ballard, Robert D. "Return to Oases of the Deep," National Geographic (November 1979), 686-705.

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