Research Vessel Finds Mile-High Underwater Mountain

Courtesy Schmidt Ocean Institute

Published Nov 22, 2023 7:35 PM by The Maritime Executive

A team of researchers with the Schmidt Ocean Institute has discovered a giant seamount previously unknown to the public, located about 280 nautical miles off the coast of Guatemala. It measures about a mile high, and judging by the age of the seafloor around it, it may have been there for millions of years without anyone reporting its existence. 

The curiously-named research vessel Falkor (too) was under way from Costa Rica to the East Pacific Rise when it stumbled upon the seamount with its sonar. The science crew's hydrographic expert confirmed that the seamount is not in any seafloor bathymetric database.

The find was an unintentional and remarkable illustration of how many secrets the ocean still contains, according to the institute.

“A seamount over 1.5 kilometers tall which has, until now, been hidden under the waves really highlights how much we have yet to discover,” said Dr. Jyotika Virmani, executive director of SOI. "A complete seafloor map is a fundamental element of understanding our Ocean so it’s exciting to be living in an era where technology allows us to map and see these amazing parts of our planet for the first time!”

Since this March, Falkor (too) has discovered two more uncharted seamounts off the Galápagos Islands, three new hydrothermal vent fields, and two cold-water coral reefs. 

“On every expedition, those aboard Falkor (too) have found the unexpected, the awe-inspiring, the new,” said Wendy Schmidt, co-founder and president of Schmidt Ocean Institute. “While there is so much we’ve come to understand as discoveries tumble ever faster into view, so much remains unknown . . . and we are thrilled to continue exploring.”

As of 2023, the world's oceanographic community has built a public map of almost one quarter of the seafloor at a resolution of 100 square meters or better. Over the last 10 years, the Schmidt Ocean Institute's surveys have contributed about 1.4 million square kilometers of data and 20 previously-unknown underwater features to the effort. A coordinating body, Seafloor 2030, hopes to achieve 100-percent coverage by the end of the decade. 

The survey data was a side benefit of an otherwise successful voyage, focused on using synthetic aperture sonar to find (relatively) tiny hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the sea, a task similar to finding a church spire from 10,000 feet in the air at night. The team found eight vents in days; previous lower-resolution sonar would have required weeks of visual searching with an ROV in the darkness of the deep.