Exploring undersea volcano

Cherisse Du Preez and her fellow scientists had never seen anything like it.

The underwater volcano about 250 kilometres off Vancouver Island was the biggest ever found in Canadian waters. Rising 2.5 kilometres from the ocean floor, it matched Mount Baker in height and covered an area similar in size to Greater Vancouver.

Equally stunning were the strange creatures populating the seamount’s unusual ecosystem — sponges and corals, sea cucumbers and sea stars.

“It was an anomaly straight from the beginning,” said Du Preez, a marine biologist with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans and part of the team that discovered the Explorer Seamount last summer.

“There were animals that we didn’t predict were going to be there. The environment was different.

“We found an ancient underwater city of sponges that we nicknamed Spongetopia. The thing is that scientists didn’t expect it was going to be there, so we were confused.”

Their gut instincts were correct, however; they were seeing something for the first time. DNA testing of samples taken last year confirmed the discovery of species previously unknown to scientists.

Now, researchers are heading back to the Explorer Seamount for a more thorough investigation of the volcano and the mysterious creatures that live there.

A team of scientists from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and their partners, the Nuu-chah-nulth Nations and Ocean Networks Canada, embarked Tuesday on a two-week expedition aboard the Canadian Coast Guard vessel John P. Tully.

The researchers plan to gather further samples and use a robot with high-resolution cameras, floodlights and sensors that can dive two kilometres to the ocean floor and send back real-time pictures.

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