April 1, 2015: Embarking from Kingston, Jamaica

Welcome to the CaySEIS website! Over the coming weeks we will update you on our progress as we image the Cayman Trough. UTIG press guru Terry Britt will manage this for me at the beach, and maybe he can even set up some sort of comment or Q&A box (wink wink nudge nudge, Terry). I’ll fill in science details along the way, tell you a bit about the history of this project, and convey my personal experience out here. Hopefully others will take their hand at blogging here, and you can hear from a lot of different perspectives. We’ll get some photos up too, along with background maps and sciency things…

I’ll write a couple paragraphs now about some general history to this project, and then some “on the scenes” news, so skip ahead if you don’t like history. And if you want some deeper science probing, let me know and I can provide.

The Cayman Trough is the long strip of low bathymetry between Honduras and Jamaica. Much of the trough is oceanic lithosphere (crust and upper mantle) that forms at the Mid-Cayman Spreading Center, also known as the Cayman Rise, and crosses the trough just south of Grand Cayman. The reason I prefer to call it the Mid-Cayman Spreading Center (MCSC) over “Rise” is simply because it is very deep along its axis, in places more than 7 kilometers! The great depths of the MCSC inspired James Cameron to set the plot of “The Abyss” there, though he filmed that sci-fi classic in a nuclear missile silo in the midwestern US I believe. Another cold war tie-in is that the US Navy funded a great deal of research in the Cayman Trough, undoubtedly thinking of its proximity to Cuba. Bob Ballard of Titanic fame, along with the great marine geologist Jeff Fox, ran an Alvin dive program there in the 1970’s. Though an incredible piece of geologic research, those programs did not find hydrothermal vents, which were the as-yet undiscovered crown jewel of discoveries at the time.

When I got to UTIG in 2007, Paul Mann (now at University of Houston) challenged me to get back to the Cayman Trough to tackle a great mid-ocean ridge geological problem. Then, in 2010, a UK group received funding to sail to the spreading center to find hydrothermal vents using preliminary data from a joint NSF-NASA project. In keeping with the international spirit, they invited Nancy Grindlay and myself along, and sometime in the second week of that cruise we found the elusive black smokers approximately 5 km below the sea surface, the deepest ever found. Then, we discovered a vent system on top of a massif that rises several kilometers above the ridge axis, a rather peculiar system given its location away from any obvious volcanic activity (paper by Connelly, et al at http://www.nature.com/ncomms/journal/v3/n1/full/ncomms1636.html#close). These discoveries were set against many long standing science questions – some with global science implications – surrounding the magmatism and faulting in the spreading center, and how the lithosphere ages as it spreads off axis.

This poster introduces the scientists of the CaySEIS project.
This poster introduces the scientists of the CaySEIS project.

While presenting a poster at the AGU national meeting about the Cayman Trough in 2011, Anke Dannowski from GEOMAR (Kiel, Germany) approached me and asked if we had any plans to do seismic imaging. I rushed home and recruited active-source tomography expert Harm Van Avendonk to help me develop a collaborative proposal with the GEOMAR group. As also is often the case in science, our plan evolved over the years as we set out to obtain funding and a ship, and so today, with the addition of Christine Peirce from Durham (UK), and chief scientist Ingo Grevemeyer serving as lead PI of the German proposal and chief scientist, we are now on the German Research Vessel Meteor sitting a half day’s sail from Kingston, getting ready for our first OBS deployment. Seeds planted years ago may yet bloom!

Enough history.

We arrived in Kingston on Sunday, an easy flight from Miami. A taxi had been arranged by the shipping company, so we were whisked away from the airport and deposited safely “uptown” at our hotel. Our jet-lagged collaborators from Europe trickled in and, miraculously, all seemed on track…

April fool’s day came early this year though. Ph.D. student Jennifer Harding and I were cooling our heels at the Bob Marley museum when we received the text from our UTIG team of Harm, Steffen Saustrup, and Anatoly Mironov who had discovered that part of our shipment had not arrived at the dock! Worse still, a palette of Christine Peirce’s ballast (weight to pull the seismometers to the seafloor) had gone missing. As quickly as possible when recruiting a Rastafarian driver to drive through central Kingston traffic, we made our way to internet connections and hardware stores to see what we could do. By the following morning we had found all that we needed on the ship and a True Value hardware store, and the amazing machinists of the Meteor had started fashioning attachments and fittings and the like. By yesterday evening the ballast had been found (it was in the incorrect warehouse!), and we woke up this morning to wave Kingston goodbye. Though no less than four strangers remarked to us that “Jamaica’s a nice place, but you’ve got to be careful”, we only encountered generosity and caring in a very busy and socially and economically complex capitol in the Caribbean.

I won’t go into too much detail about the science plan now, but the main objective at the immediate moment is to make sure we can drop ocean bottom seismometers (OBS) onto the seafloor, have them record data, come back to the surface, be visible to people on watch, and be pulled out of the water from the deck which rides about two meters above the sea. So the sun has set as the sound of the tinkering of the numerous students, technicians, scientists, and crew fill the air…

– Nick Hayman


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