“This is the yellow brick road!” was the astonished reaction of scientists to their recent underwater sighting of what resembled a paved highway to nowhere – at a depth of 2,000m.
The surrounding area resembled a dried-up lakebed, the scientists had observed, before instructing the ROV that was transmitting live images to the surface to take a detour and examine the unexpected feature.
“I feel like I’m looking at the road to Atlantis,” exclaimed one of the observers, with the adjectives “cool”, “bizarre”, “crazy”, “wired” and “unique” followed in quick succession.
Their discovery was not the remnants of a lost civilisation, however – although it remained exciting for the scientific team as an example of ancient active volcanic geology.
The 68m expedition vessel Nautilus and its ROVs explore unknown oceanic regions in search of biological, geological and archaeological discoveries, relaying live seabed video footage direct to the public as they go.
The ROVs have recently been deployed on the Lili’uokalani Ridge in Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, which is a World Heritage listed US site encompassing 583,000sq miles of the Pacific Ocean and including 10 north-western Hawaiian islands and atolls.
The yellow brick road feature, spotted at the summit of the Nootka seamount, was identified as a fractured flow of volcanic rock formed as the result of multiple high-energy eruptions that would have caused many rock fragments to settle to the seabed. The unusual 90° fractures were thought to be related to heating and cooling stress from the eruptions. Crinoids were observed living along the “road”.
The team had been collecting samples of basalts coated with iron-manganese crusts from different depths and oxygen saturations. Their objective is to determine the geological origin and age of the seamounts and to assess their biodiversity in terms of coral, sponge and microbial communities.
Nautilus Live and the Nautilus Exploration Program are operated by the Ocean Exploration Trust (OET), founded in 2008 by Dr Robert Ballard, with funding from the USA’s National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Follow current Nautilus activity on its YouTube Channels.