Changing Planet

Deep-Sea Cameras Reveal ‘Sharkcano’

Over four days, Brennan Phillips’ expedition team boated closer and closer to Kavachi, an underwater volcano off the Solomon Islands.

“Absolutely, we were scared,” says Phillips, a National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants Program grantee. “But one of the ways you can tell that Kavachi is erupting is that you can actually hear it—both on the surface and underwater. Anywhere within 10 miles even, you can hear it rumbling in your ears and in your body.” No one heard rumbling, so they prepared to go right to the rim of the crater.

Their mission was to make a map of Kavachi’s peak and learn as much as possible about the chemical plumes, geology, and biology of the volcano. It is an extreme and dangerous environment.

Sensing Earth’s Inner Power

“Nobody actually knows how often Kavachi erupts,” says Phillips, referring to it actively “spewing hot lava, ash, and steam up in to the air.”

Even without such theatrics it’s a dangerous place. “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.”

So the team strategically deployed their instruments—including disposable robots, underwater cameras, and National Geographic’s deep-sea Drop Cam—to get a broad look at the whole volcano, including what the bottom looks like. Their biggest surprise was that hammerheads and silky sharks showed up on their deep-sea Drop Cam footage—in numbers (Related story: Sleeper Shark Pops Up in Unexpected Place).

The water is greenish-orange due to an ash-laden plume concealing Kavachi volcano’s active summit just beneath the surface. It can erupt over 500 feet into the air.  (Photo by Alex DeCiccio)
The greenish-orange color of the water in this photo is due to an ash-laden plume concealing Kavachi volcano’s active summit just beneath the surface. It can erupt over 500 feet into the air. (Photo by Alex DeCiccio)

How Do They Survive?

“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,” Phillips says. “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? It is so black and white when you see a human being not able to get anywhere near where these sharks are able to go.”

Despite the fact that Kavachi was not actively erupting, the video shows carbon dioxide and methane gas bubbles rising from the seafloor vents, and the water appearing in different colors due to reduced iron and sulfur.

Phillips is keen to set up a seismic observatory along with long-term deployment of deep-sea cameras on Kavachi. “It would be very interesting to pair observations of animal activity, such as the sharks, with actual eruptions of the main peak. Do they get an early warning and escape the caldera before it gets explosive, or do they get trapped and perish in steam and lava?”

“It opens up all kinds of questions … There are infinite directions in which we can go.”


Read About Brennan Phillips’ other big discovery on this expedition: Sleeper Shark Pops Up in Unexpected Place.

See more footage of deep-sea sharks filmed by the Nat Geo Drop Cam.

Catch a bite of SharkFest on Nat Geo Wild.

Carolyn Barnwell has been a producer on the Science and Exploration Media team at National Geographic for over five years. She creates content to support the non-profit National Geographic Society including impact initiatives and the important work of explorers and grantees around the globe. She wrote, produced and edited for Nat Geo’s first-ever web series focused on explorers in the field: Expedition Raw and Best Job Ever. She loves yin yoga, wildlife encounters, and eating baked goods while they are still warm from the oven.
  • Lisa

    How interesting it was to find out that there are erupting volcanos beneath the ocean. I had NO idea. I’d love to see some photography of one erupting and surfacing., Too cool.

    • Carolyn Barnwell

      If you do a web search for Kavachi eruption you’ll see a bunch of cool photos!

  • Silas Losinyaari Noah

    So amazing mother nature.

  • Heather

    Sharknado 3: Sharkano

  • Douglas King

    I am no expert on much of anything. Just a thought though… Sharks can smell blood. What if the iron content in blood is what attracts them? So what if the volcano is erupting with iron particles? I am open to any feedback on this?

  • C.A. Lewis

    Wow – this is amazing information. What we don’t know about adaptation, eh?! Hopefully there will be followup research results and details.

  • emmaliz

    Are there any further studies planned for these sharks? It be really interesting to find out if they have changed at all on a cellular level or genetically speaking in order to adapt to this environment. These are animals that have lasted almost forever in history and the discovery of new species would be something big. I have known of shrimps and plankton that can stand those temperatures and acidic levels but never of anything bigger. Please keep us posted. Thanks

  • jayleen

    Does these particular sharks know about the volcano being erupted and swiming around the lava? Another thing about these sharks do they have noticeable smell when a volcanoes erupted?

  • Daring Steel

    Really? 6+ months and not one Sharkboy And Lavagirl joke?

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