What’s the most exciting thing you’ve ever seen in the ocean? Maybe a group of surfacing whales? The fabled green flash? Maybe you’ve heard other people talking about harrowing stories of real-life sea monsters (giant squid are scary, okay?). We can almost bet that you haven’t seen a volcano, though.
But then there’s the crew of the Maiken, a yacht that set sail in the South Pacific in 2006 and saw something that literally no one else had encountered before, a journey that sometimes felt more like a fairy tale than the real world – and led to an amazing, documented discovery that you’ll have to see to believe.
1. A Strange Mass Appears in the Waves
The crew and passengers of the yacht Maiken first noticed these odd streaks in the water. It was clearly not land, and nothing that they had expected to see on that particular trip. Ordinarily this would be an odd illusion from a cloud, a sudden bloom of algae in the water, or possibly an unusual gathering of other marine life (maybe even an oil spill or trash). All of these could reasonably be expected in the vibrant South Pacific sea. However, the Maiken was about to stumble onto something far stranger and less common.
2. The Yacht Draws Closer
The Maiken approached the strange disturbance cautiously. The yacht was not an exploration vessel and didn’t have scientific equipment to study the ocean, but the crew was still curious enough to take a closer look.
3. Something Seems Off
A Swedish sailor Fredrick Fransson, who had spent a lot of time in these waters, had noticed something else eerie: The water in this area of Tonga was always a rich blue hue. Now, however, the water was turning a disquieting green color, more like a lagoon than the open ocean.
4. Land Ho? …No
The more the crew studied the event, the less sense it seemed to make – at least at first. It looked like land – actually, specifically, it looked like a sudden beach or desert suddenly appearing out of the ocean, which was impossible.
5. The Mystery Deepens
Even weirder, the closer that the Maiken got the more the crew realized this wasn’t land at all – it was moving. The dirt or sand or whatever it was undulated with the ocean waves beneath, rippling and following the current. While there are vast sections of ocean seaweed that can sometimes gather and do this, it was clear that this was not seaweed, nor anything else that the crew had encountered before. In fact, it looked a little like brown coal.
6. More Clues Revealed
The yacht was now entering the strange field floating in the middle of the ocean, which allowed them to get a much closer look. It soon became clear that the mass was not exactly sand or dirt: Instead it was made of many, many small pebbles. Pebbles, as you know, tend to sink in the water, not float…except in very special cases. And suddenly, the crew started to put together what was happening.
7. Just Passing Through
While investigating the floating pebbles, the crew took time for some incredible shots, such as this one of their wake passing through the field. Notice how the pebbles are closing in after them: Fransson noted that it felt like being in the middle of the Sahara and its dunes – not like being on the ocean at all.
8. Putting the Pieces Together
There is one type of stone that floats, of course: The legendary pumice. Pumice is created from volcanic magma cooling in a particular way that creates many little air pockets and holes making the stone buoyant. However, pumice doesn’t just appear in the middle of the ocean…until it does.
9. A Maddening Landscape
While the crew of the Maiken boggled at what looked like sailing their yacht through land instead of through water, they were also coming up with a theory on what could be happening. If a volcano was to start forming under the sea with the right temperature and right minerals, it could form pumice very quickly – and that pumice would float to the surface.
10. Burning Ring of Fire
You see, volcanoes can form under the ocean as well as on land – these are classified as submarine volcanoes. They are particularly common in the Pacific “ring of fire” which includes the Hawaiian Islands and the islands that the Maiken was touring right now.
11. What’s That in the Distance?
The crew began to look for other signs of volcanic activity – partly to confirm the theory, but also party because they didn’t want to sail right into a mass of boiling steam! Fortunately, they caught sight of a plume of smoke and steam well away from their location (now free of the strange pumice field).
12. Birth of a Miracle
As they were watching, that plume of smoke quickly grew and the crew noticed that it looked like a mass was forming – not a field of floating stone, but something far more substantial that was actually rising out of the horizon, thick and jagged.
13. Hello, Volcano!
The plume of steam and smoke continued to push out of the ocean. In fact, it grew so large that it began to blot out the sun – just like a volcanic eruption. And like a volcano, it was very dangerous to get too close, so the Maiken kept on backing away…and, of course, snapping sweet pics. Because it was still a volcano.
14. What Are You?
Underwater volcanoes tend to stay underwater, where they act like hot vents (and are very good for unique ocean life). Volcanic ecosystems bring hot water, bacteria and minerals that aren’t normally found in the ocean. The type of animal that most commonly thrives off this ecosystem are giant tube worms, which can grow up to three feet a year! They are a great source of nutrients for other larger aquatic animals.
15. I See You Brought an Island With You
So what was this one doing on the surface, actively creating an island? This happens too, but it’s much more rare.
16. Explaining the Process
You see, according the Maiken charts, the area where the volcano formed was part of Home Reef. Home Reef is a large underwater seamount, a very large hill that came close to the surface of the water.
17. Go, Little Volcano!
Because a seamount is so close to the surface, a new and very active volcano can push itself up enough to break the surface. This happens as the volcano spews out layers and layers of magma that meet the ocean water and quickly cool, forming more land mass…until a baby island peeks above the waves.
18. This Looks Familiar…
While the birth of a new island is rare, active volcanoes do tend to add mass – and the best example is the beautiful Hawaiian Islands. When their lava-happy volcanoes get restless, the islands tend to literally grow as lava hits the ocean and solidifies, expanding the land. All the Hawaiian Islands were likely formed in just the way that the crew of the Maiken witnessed. Volcanic land tends to be particularly fertile.
19. The Maiken was Lucky
Not all islands are born with a mysterious floating sea of stone. Sometimes the birth is far more sudden and violent, with little warning ahead of time – like this Tonga eruption that birthed a new island. Good thing there weren’t any yachts around there!
20. A More Peaceful Option
The Home Reef island was a quieter affair, and the Maiken was far enough away by the time the island began to rise, so were those unmistakable signs of a new island. Notice that the sea nearby seems relatively calm at this point.
21. Are You Going to Keeping Erupting? Oh Yes, Yes You Are
Volcanic eruptions can be sudden and violent, but they can also last for a long time. The Home Reef volcano had probably been building up landmass quietly for a long time before a final large eruption pushes it to the surface.
22. Thanks Technology!
In fact, thanks to the quick photos and wireless connection options on the Maiken, this was the first island-forming eruption that scientists were able to watch via satellite, as it happened.
23. Has This Happened Before?
Actually, it has! In this very same spot. The Home Reef very briefly made appearances above sea level on three separate occasions before 2006. The eruptions in 1954, 1957, 1984 all help build the foundation for the new island.
24. Would You Like to Name an Island?
We bet you’re thinking, “What happens now? Are they going to put the cute island on a map and give it a name?” Probably not – not yet, at least. Little islands like these may eventually end up on maps, but they are rarely named officially. Colloquially they gather names, and so tend to have several different names based on which sailor you talk to!
25. Hi, Australia!
Interestingly, that field of pumice kept traveling the waves for a long, long time. The eruption happened in 2006 and in 2007, nearly a year later, the pumice field began washing up on Australian coasts – probably confusing a lot of surfers.
26. That’s Not The Only Thing Sticking Around
Rumor has it that this 240 foot tall volcano is making sure that no one forgot how amazing it is! It was reported that 4 months after the eruption the smell of sulfur gasses were still prominent in the area.
27. A Tale to Take Home
Thanks to modern communication and quick action, a tale that may have otherwise been written off as ridiculous or an urban legend was quickly verified, leading to valuable scientific study and a very cool story that the crew was able to share with families.
28. Flash Forward to Today
So, what does the Home Reef island look like today? Well it hasn’t grown much, and it’s in such an out-of-the-way location that scientists haven’t studied it in many years. The last time they looked, back in 2008, the tides were high and the island was buried under the waves, back to being a seamount. Will it grow again in the future? We certainly hope so!
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