Our planet is a beautiful, yet mysterious place. With all the developments in science, we are only now beginning to discover and learn new things about our beautiful planet. When scientists sent a robotic camera to Kavachi, an active volcano off the coast of New Guinea, they came across something unexpected. The volcano last erupted in 2014 and scientists did not imagine any life to exist underneath. However, the crew were surprised to find not just life but large carnivores circling its turbulent base.
Kavachi volcano is a shallow submarine volcano located south of the remote Vangunu Island in the Solomones.
Also known as Rejo te Kvachi, “Kavachi’s Oven”, it is one of the most active volcanoes of the Pacific, with near surface eruptions every few years that often build temporary islands. It last erupted in 2014 but has been a growing concern that it could erupt any time soon. A NASA satellite captured evidence of its most recent eruption in January 2014. So, scientists who were eager to learn about the volcano, deployed cameras into the hot, acidic water around the volcano for about an hour.
“Kavachi is in a remote part of the Solomon Islands with very limited travel options. So you have to design robots that fit into carry-on luggage on a Twin Otter plane. Also, these robots are considered disposable. Therefore, we are making them as low cost as possible—hundreds of dollars.”
But in that short time, they spotted scalloped hammerhead sharks, silky sharks, a sixgill stingray and other marine life living happily inside a dangerous, acidic, super-heated environment.
Sleeper sharks, though rarely observed, are native to the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, as well as Antarctica and Tasmania. However, these Pacific sleeper sharks startled researchers, since they showed up inside an active volcano.
“We were freaking out,” said University of Rhode Island Ph.D student Brennan Phillips to National Geographic.
The scientists were interested in learning about the underwater volcano after observing volcanic activity earlier this year. After one of the cameras were retrieved, they noticed something strange and blob-like on one of the video’s thumbnails.
The odd, “large brown blob” was later identified through its coloration and physical characteristics as a Pacific sleeper shark.
“The idea of there being large animals, like sharks, hanging out and living inside the caldera of this volcano conflicts with what we know about Kavachi, which is that it erupts,” ocean engineer Brennan Phillips, who led the trip, explained to National Geographic.
“When it’s erupting, there’s no way anything could live in there,” he added. “And so to see large animals like this that are living and potentially they could die at any moment, it brings up lots of questions. Do they leave? Do they have some sort of sign that it’s about to erupt? Do they blow up sky-high in little bits?”
“Divers who have gotten close to the outer edge of the volcano have had to back away because of how hot it is or because they were getting mild skin burns from the acid water,” Phillips said. “These large animals are living in what you have to assume is much hotter and much more acidic water, and they’re just hanging out. It makes you question what type of extreme environment these animals are adapted to. What sort of changes have they undergone? Are there only certain animals that can withstand it?
“The fact that we saw animals in the plume like that, that opens up all kinds of interesting questions,” Phillips said. “That’s the best project, is to go out with one question and come back with many.”
On the same expedition, the team also spotted a shark species known as a sleeper shark about 12 miles from Kavachi.
Pacific sleeper sharks aren’t your everyday silver-and-white, streamlined predator. They have a long, torpedo-shaped body with a wide, blunt head and a relatively small mouth. They can reach up to 22 feet in length. They have very small eyes and they basically rely on their sense of smell to find prey. The shark, which is normally found in the northern Atlantic and Pacific or farther south near Australia and Antartica, had never before been spotted around the Solomon Islands.
“That’s what makes discovering these animals down inside the volcano so perplexing. They’re living in a place where they could ‘die at any moment,’ so how do they survive? It’s very turbid, so the water is very cloudy. None of these things are good for fish. The area is now colloquially known as ‘Shark-ano’.”
Scientists believe the sharks must have mutated to survive in the hot and acidic environment. Although we are left with more questions than answers, it is still an amazing discovery to find these creatures surviving in conditions that no human can.