Jon Copley is the first (and so far only) British person to dive more than three miles deep in the ocean. As a marine biologist, his research explores undersea volcanic vents and other “islands of life” on the ocean floor, where his team have discovered dozens of new species during recent expeditions. Jon is an Associate Professor of Marine Ecology at the University of Southampton. In 2013 Jon took part in the first human-crewed mission to the world’s deepest known hydrothermal vents, diving 3.1 miles deep into the Cayman Trough of the Caribbean with Japanese colleagues aboard a minisubmarine. Over the past 20 years, he has explored other deep-sea vents in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans; undersea mountains and craters in the Antarctic; bizarre lakes of ultrasalty water at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico; and the seafloor earthquake zone that triggered the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. These voyages have discovered deep-sea creatures such as hairy-chested crabs and bone-eating “zombie” worms, and revealed previously hidden impacts of our everyday lives in the deep ocean. Jon is a former Reporter and Assistant News Editor of New Scientist magazine, and currently a scientific consultant for the BBC Natural History Unit.
Our blue dot is not just an ocean planet – it is a deep ocean planet, relative to our human scale. Sixty percent of our world lies beneath water more than one kilometre deep, beyond the reach of the Sun’s rays. Our species developed the technology to withstand the crushing pressures of the abyss less than a century ago, and since then our journeys have revealed its landscapes and inhabitants to be just as rich and varied as those on land. Among its wonders are hydrothermal vents, where fluids hot enough to melt lead meet cold deep-ocean water to build mineral spires several storeys high in a matter of months, and where lush colonies of deep-sea animals thrive thanks to geologically-fuelled microbes among them.
In this talk, I’ll take you on a tour of my team’s recent discoveries at deep-sea vents, to see how their inhabitants are not the same all over world. In the Antarctic, we’ll see heaving stacks of hairy-chested crabs, who lead strange lives between the warm waters of the vents and the icy polar ocean beyond. Meanwhile, vents in the Indian Ocean are home to snails whose fleshy “feet” are covered with metal plates, unlike any other snails on Earth. And at the world’s deepest hydrothermal vents, more than three miles down in the Cayman Trough, swarms of shrimp with light-sensing patches on their backs nestle next to undersea geysers erupting fluids as hot as 401 degrees C. As we explore the deep-sea vents of our blue dot, we’ll also consider the possibility of hidden oceans with deep-sea vents elsewhere in our Solar System. And by finding out how species persist among these temporary islands of life, which are isolated from each other by a vast dark abyss, we’ll look at parallels between deep-sea vents and life in the cosmos, which might help to reconcile the Drake Equation with the Fermi Paradox (if life-supporting planets are common, where is everybody?).