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Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton

Deep Impact: Engaging public audiences and policymakers with biodiversity in the deep ocean

Deep ocean environments, defined as depths greater than 200 metres, cover more than 65 per cent of the surface of our planet. They are under increasing pressure from human activities, such as the exploitation of their resources and the disposal of our waste.

Supported by several NERC grants since 2008, research at Southampton’s School of Ocean and Earth Science explores the biodiversity and ecology of deep-sea environments, including their vulnerability to future activities such as deep-sea mining.

An extensive programme of public engagement led by Dr Jon Copley has raised wider awareness of these findings.

Research challenge

The programme of research involved expeditions with UK research ships using NERC's deep-diving Remotely Operated Vehicle, with key findings including:

  • the discovery and ecology of hydrothermal vents on the Mid-Cayman Spreading Centre of the Caribbean Sea and the adaptations of a new shrimp species dominating those vents;
  • the discovery and ecology of "black smoker" hydrothermal vents in the Southern Ocean and the adaptations of a new crab species, the "Hoff" crab, abundant at those vents;
  • the discovery of six previously undescribed species at hydrothermal vents on the Southwest Indian Ridge and the adaptations of the abundant "scaly-foot snail" from those vents.
Deep sea vent life

Documentaries and broadcasts

The researchers worked with BBC producers to feature the Southern Ocean hydrothermal vents and the “Hoff” crab in major documentaries. This included Blue Planet II episode The Deep, the second most-viewed television programme of 2017 in the UK with fourteen million viewers.

Working with an independent film-maker, the researchers also produced a short film, Hydrothermal Vents: What Does The Future Hold?, about the Cayman Trough and the context of deep-sea mining. This was a finalist at the 2014 Blue Ocean Film Festival.

Research on hydrothermal vents also featured on BBC radio programmes Into The Abyss (2014) and The Compass: Ocean Stories (2017), highlighting the issue of deep-sea mining and its potential environmental impacts.

Massive Open Online Course (MOOC)

A MOOC, Exploring Our Ocean, introduces people with no prior scientific background to the team’s exploration of deep-sea environments and their biodiversity. Fourteen runs of the MOOC over 2014-2020 attracted more than 52,000 enrolments from 183 countries.

Participant feedback included: “Might sound odd but this has changed my life and inspired me beyond anything before” and “Instead of marvelling at how wonderful the deep-sea creatures are, I came to realize it is necessary that we must do our utmost to protect them".

The MOOC was Highly Commended in the Ocean Awards 2016, recognising engagement in ocean stewardship.

Online broadcasts during lockdown

In 2020 the researchers collaborated with Let's Go Live!, a YouTube series for home-schooled children during Covid-19 lockdown, to bring the ecology of hydrothermal vent shrimp to more than 5,000 households for a live show, with more than 25,000 online views in total.

The research also featured in the Guardian Science Weekly podcast and the BBC Science Focus podcast series Everything you ever wanted to know about… the deep sea with Dr Jon Copley.

In-person engagement and popular science book

In 2015 Copley won a NERC "Summer Of Science" public engagement grant, which he used to deliver talks at the annual British Science Festival and create exhibits for the Southampton Boat Show, the Natural History Museum, and NERC's "RRS Discovery in London" programme.

Further major events included Bluedot Festival, New Scientist Live and R3A at the Royal Institution.

Over 2017-2020 the research on Southern Ocean hydrothermal vents and the ecology of the “Hoff” crab featured in "Deep Ocean Lab" school and family events delivered by science presenter Greg Foot to a total of 8,600 school pupils, their family members, and teachers.

Dialogue with audiences at the events informed the content and format for Copley’s well-reviewed 2019 book, Ask an Ocean Explorer, which he took on a 20-date national tour to engage people with the research.

Policy engagement

In 2014, Copley was selected for the Royal Society’s Parliamentary Pairing Scheme. He used the research on Indian Ocean hydrothermal vents to raise policymakers’ awareness of deep-sea environments and their biodiversity.

The research featured in a Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) Briefing Note on Deep-sea Mining and in a Royal Society report, Future Ocean Resources, distributed to parliamentarians, government departments, and NGOs.

Additionally, Copley presented the research findings to the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee and wrote an article for Science In Parliament, sent to around 600 parliamentarians and civil servants.

He also highlighted the research in written evidence to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee inquiry on Sustainable Seas. The research featured in the Committee's final report and was discussed in the House of Commons, going on to inform a UK policy recommendation for a moratorium on mining active hydrothermal vents.


Antarctic vent chimney
Jabberwocky vent

Key Publications

List of all staff members in
Staff MemberPrimary Position
Jon CopleyAssociate Professor in Ocean Exploration & Public Engagement
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