Deep sea hydrothermal vents harbour some of the most extraordinary species on our planet. Lying at two to three kilometers below the surface, these extreme, insular ecosystems are powered, not by the sunlight-driven photosynthesis that we’re used to, but by energy from superheated mineral-rich seawater jetting from cracks in the seafloor. This supports thriving and unique animal communities with a density of life that rivals tropical rainforests or coral reefs. From giant red tubeworms to iron-armoured snails, these species were once considered to be untouchable by human activity, but that may not be the case for very long.
There is growing industrial interest in the deep sea. Most importantly, this includes mining for metals like copper, lead and zinc which form the towering hydrothermal vent structures. The International Seabed Authority, the UN body responsible for managing the seafloor beyond national jurisdictions, has already granted 31 exploratory deep sea mining contracts, seven of them at hydrothermal vents.