To the untrained eye, it looks like sediment.
But to the scientists aboard the Ocean No. 1, China's top marine research ship, it may hold the key to unlocking the secrets of the deep sea.
The Ocean No. 1 has finished the initial phase of the country's first round-the-world ocean research mission after collecting a large number of data and seabed samples.
Part of that mission involved a joint mission by Chinese and US scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Divers entered the US Navy-owned Deep Submergence Vehicle, and Chinese scientists collected deep-sea hydrothermal fluid samples, and micro and sea floor sediment samples at depths ranging from 2,200 to 4,500 meters.
"The samples and data will greatly boost the research work in biology and geosciences," said Wang Chunsheng, a marine biologist with the Second Institute of Oceanography under the State Oceanic Administration.
After setting off on April 2 from Qingdao in east China's Shandong Province, 30 crew members and 42 scientific researchers conducted research on the Pacific Ocean using state-of-the-art equipment aboard the 5,600-ton ship.
They collected a large number of seabed mine plants, fish and other sea life that can be used in biological research, Wang said.
In addition, deep-sea marine data was recorded by a 5,000-metre-long anchor system.
"The mission gives researchers their best opportunity to test China's latest self-developed marine technology and to develop a group of ocean professionals," Wang said yesterday.
The Ocean No. 1 reached Acapulco de Juarez in Mexico earlier this month via Hawaii and then returned home.
The second phase, involving the Atlantic and Indian oceans, will begin later this month, traveling from Jamaica to South Africa. The ship will return to Qingdao in February.
"The round-the-world scientific research mission not only realizes the long-term dream of Chinese ocean circles for sailing the three oceans, but also will write a new and brilliant page for the development history of China's ocean undertaking," Wang said.
The central government has put heavy emphasis on protecting the ocean resources and environment and enhanced research on marine resources in recent years.
China allocated 5 billion yuan (US$602 million) for ocean research during the 10th Five-Year Plan period (2001-05).
(China Daily September 22, 2005)