When a voyage of 40 scientists headed to sub-Antarctic territories earlier this month, they were on the lookout for underwater volcanoes, iron and the life that lies within the southern ocean.
Around 20 days in to the eight-week voyage, researchers on the RV Investigator have made some early and exciting discoveries around the Heard and McDonald islands, 4000 kilometres south-west of Perth and 2000 kilometres north of Australia's base at Davis Station in Antarctica.
"We've tentatively identified over 50 hydrothermal dent systems on the sea floor, [which are] areas where hot hydrothermal fluids that are actually cooling hot volcanic rock beneath the sea," said Professor Mike Coffin, from the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, who is chief scientist of the voyage.
Speaking from on board the RV Investigator, Professor Coffin said his team is yet to see underwater volcanoes, because the water is "extremely turbid," and it is still early days, but he added that the fluids they have observed have big implications.
"Those fluids, because they are so hot, they pick up iron and other rare earth trace metals from the rocks and then they expel them into the ocean. Our hypothesis and overarching purpose of the voyage is to see if this solid earth-provided iron is actually nourishing phytoplankton up on the sea surface."
The research regions were selected because, unlike large parts of the Southern Ocean, they have an abundance of marine life, which the scientists believe may be linked to higher levels of iron.
The research program on the CSIRO Marine National Facility research vessel is divided into phases, the first of which was to repeat a transect across the plateau that was done about 10 years ago, to assess the role of iron in feeding phytoplankton.
The next stage is looking for hydrothermal systems on the sea floor associated with active volcanoes.
"We're in the midst of that phase now. That phase was originally intended to last for four weeks and we're only five days in and we've already made some fascinating discoveries on the sea floor."
Professor Coffin said one unexpected finding has been that McDonald island, which has only had two landings in its entire history, has changed shape since the last time geologists landed.
"In the early 1990s when ships passed by they observed there were islands that comprised McDonald island. In a subsequent eruption of McDonald island the two islands became one," he said.
"Now they are two islands again because the sea has eroded away the connection between them. It's a dynamic landscape here above the water and we're just trying to find out what's going on below the water."
Life is indeed abundant above the water surface in the region, with the voyage having sighted elephant seals, fur seals, seabirds and "thousands and thousands of penguins, like carpet", on McDonald island.
But it is not all work and no play for the team on board the RV Investigator, who even celebrated Australia Day on Tuesday in style.
"We had a barbecue, despite it being around five degrees and with wind gusts of 30 knots our crew rose to the challenge and had the galley decorated in Australiana and flags."