On May 16, 2005, the 6,600-ton nuclear submarine U.S.S. San Francisco entered a poorly charted area 400 miles southwest of Guam in the Pacific Ocean. While traveling at 38 miles per hour at 500 feet the colossal submarine suddenly buckled into the side of an uncharted seamount, killing one sailor and injuring 75. Fortunately, the thick inner hull protecting the nuclear reactor and crew held. Amidst the pandemonium that ensued, the sub and all but the one crew member survived.
The San Francisco slammed into one of the estimated sixty thousand seamounts that rise from the seafloor in all oceans of the Earth. Most are uncharted, only a few hundred have ever been visited, less than 1000 have names and only a handful have been intensively studied.
Map of documented seamounts (pdf)
Seamounts are a combination of extinct and active underwater volcanoes. On July 3, 2005, a seamount erupted off the coast of Japan, spewing smoke into the air and clouds of mud into the water, first noticed by airline pilots flying in the region. In 1952, another seamount off the cost of Japan erupted, releasing city-sized clouds of CO2 gas that rose to the surface and enveloped a 200-foot ship, sinking the vessel in the foam that formed on the sea surface like a giant glass of beer.
Seamounts, the hidden mountains of the sea, rival the Rocky Mountains in size and challenge coral reefs for the high levels of biodiversity. Seamounts contain many new and endemic species and are now recognized as the last frontier in earth geography, ocean science and conservation.
Complex networks of deep and shallow currents swirling around, up and over these giant seamounts enriches the water, increasing ocean productivity and encouraging concentrations of ocean life. While it is very hard to save many areas of coastal ocean life, where over fishing is decades old, there is still time to save the biodiversity of seamounts, many of which are still pristine. International initiatives to save the unique life living on seamounts are critical for ocean conservation.
We are exploring the seamounts of the Sea of Cortez in the hope that understanding these underwater mountains will help build the awareness to protect them and seamounts everywhere.