• Ecology
20,000 Leagues Under the Indian Ocean
Text by Shu Yun and Liao Jianlin Photographs courtesy of the authors unless otherwise credited


Xiangyanghong 10 anchored at Qingdao Wharf.  Xinhua  Working on the deck.

On February 19, 2017, China’s ocean scientific survey ship, Xiangyanghong 10, lifted anchor at Port Louis in Mauritius and set off south across 37 degrees south latitude for a lengthy journey.

On March 8, the ship crossed paths with a strong typhoon throwing seawater eight meters high. Thick, white waves shot up from the dark blue surges, pulling the ship forward like a galloping horse. Cups and tableware fell to the ground and drawers opened and closed like an impromptu symphony.

The trip was only the third leg of the 43rd ocean expedition by Chinese scientists. The first country to sign a contract granting rights to polymetallic sulfide exploration in the southwestern Indian Ocean, China dispatched the team to conduct primary exploration of the contract zone.


“Gold Rush” in the Deep

Whether roaring waves or silky tranquility, the crew is constantly engulfed by boundless blue. What is hiding beneath the several thousands of meters of mysterious water?

A robotic arm and deep-sea grab bucket fitted with a camera drops deep into the water. After about an hour, it reaches 2,000 meters down: Nothing can be seen, not plants or fish. The monitor displays only black basalt and sandy sediments.

If you are patient, however, the world will surprise you. Occasionally, the camera finds red coral, white sponges and a few unknown creatures.

Due to the darkness, low temperatures and high pressure, life is severely restricted on the deep sea floor. “It’s hard to believe that anything could survive down there at 2 to 4 degrees centigrade,” opines Lu Shihui, assistant to the chief scientist overseeing the mission.

Compared to the colorful vistas scuba divers might see, veteran oceanic explorer Lu prefers solid rocky ribbons of taupe, red, and yellow, which indicate the possibility of deposits for which they hunt: polymetallic sulfide——a mineral rich with metals such as copper, zinc, and silver and a potential resource that some countries have already explored.

The Chinese team consists of more than 60 members, who study the middle ridges of the southwestern Indian Ocean at 2,000 to 4,000 meters in depth.



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