Changing Planet

The Search for Submarine Volcanos Begins

The daily commute: a Solomon Islander plies the waters near the active Kolombangara stratovolcano. Photograph by Sarah L. Smith

By Brennan Phillips

The hunt for active hydrothermal activity around the Solomon Islands is on! National Geographic Society/Waitt grantee Brennan Phillips and his team are searching for underwater volcanic activity. Their findings will be the first step towards ecosystem-based management of deep-sea mineral resources.

“The only tidings we have from these unfathomable regions are by means of volcanoes, those burning mountains that seem to discharge their materials from the lowest abysses of the earth.”

–Oliver Goldsmith, A History of the Earth and Animated Nature, 1875

If it weren’t so much work to actually get here, I’d think I was on vacation. Tiny dotted islands of lush greenery surround immense volcanic cones covered in virgin rainforest. Native Solomon Islanders still shuttle between villages using dugout canoes, while giant tuna, swordfish, and sharks are in abundance. The diving here is unparalleled; the Solomon Islands are the most recent addition to the “Coral Triangle”, which harbors 76 percent of Earth’s coral species. Deeper than 100 meters, however, the Solomons are entirely unexplored; which is stunning considering they lie in an area the size of New England containing active tectonic plate subduction, rifting, and a seafloor spreading center. To say this region is ripe for exploration is a gross understatement.

This expedition will investigate some of the lowest hanging fruit in the Solomon Islands archipelago, submarine-geologically speaking. Using small boats we will head out every day to the Kavachi volcano, a mere 23 kilometers offshore. Kavachi does break the surface every once in awhile, spewing airborne chunks of hot lava, so not exactly without peril here… but since we’re looking deep, we’ll keep a safe distance. Our plan is to look for signs of hot, chemically-altered water as deep as 1,500 meters (almost a mile down), and then drop cameras to the seafloor to see what’s causing the phenomenon.

Picture of the Triton, an expedition dive boat based out of the Wilderness Lodge on Gatokae Island
The Triton, an expedition dive boat based out of the Wilderness Lodge on Gatokae Island. Photograph by Simon Albert

Our boat is really small, which makes things interesting. Everything has to be battery powered, and only small electric tools can be used on the boat itself. Normally this wouldn’t a big deal, but for deep-sea exploration, it’s unheard of. Thankfully, this is the future and technology makes this problem easy to solve! The self-powered, self-logging, deep-sea rated vent hunting instruments that NOAA provided are the size of a bottle of wine, and throw in National Geographic’s own deep-sea drop cameras and we’re off to the races. We can do multiple instrument ‘casts’ to 1,500 meters several times in a day, and be back in time for dinner at the lodge on Gatokae Island.

We hope to show you some amazing deep-sea stuff from the Solomon Sea. We also hope to gather information that can help make better decisions about the impending pressure of deep-sea mining in the region. Join us, on the Triton, as we hang out next to an active submarine volcano just starting to break through the surface. I can’t wait to see what’s down there!

Brennan Phillips is a deep-sea biologist and ocean instrumentation engineer. His research involves deep-sea exploration, hydrothermal vents, submarine volcanoes, and hydrothermal plume effects on water column biology. He also serves as Dr. Bob Ballard's chief ROV pilot, and has participated in dozens of expeditions around the world. Brennan is based out of Providence, Rhode Island USA and is a 2014 National Geographic Society/Waitt grantee.
  • Simon Phillips

    Good Luck in your research, this is a great site …

  • Johnny Langenheim

    Hi Brennan, I manage the Coral Triangle website – Was wondering if you’d be interested in running a story on the site that tells us a bit more about you’re work and what you mean by ecosystem based management of mineral resources in the Solomon Islands?

  • Edith Savage

    Can’t wait to find out with you, Brennan. Happy, safe,
    and successful exploring. Aunt Edith

  • Edith Savage

    Can’t wait to find out with you, Brennan. Happy, safe and successful exploring.

  • Kathleen Dahill & Chris Sweitzer

    aloha, Brennan – Wishing you, your wife and your family a bright and blessed New Year. Hope Murray loves the sea and music as much as you do. Lots of love and safe voyage

  • Don Cooke

    Nice to meet you on the ‘plane last night. Keep the posts coming! Be safe, and enjoy your adventure/”vacation”.

  • Beth Tasca

    Looking forward to some amazing photographs and stories.
    Best of luck to you and Alex.

  • Dawn

    Looking forward to interesting facts and photos !

  • Linda DeCiccio

    Exciting adventure! Looking forward to all posts from you and Alex!

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