© UnknownAbove, workers prepare the remote operated vehicle (ROV) for its plunge to the depths of the Pacific Ocean.

Geosciences professor Robert Stern's research has him scouring the depths of the ocean. But he's not hunting lost treasure. He and graduate student Julia Robeiro are studying volcanic activity beneath the sea.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, Stern and Robeiro undertook the first part of their study Feb. 2-7 analyzing underwater volcanoes in the Western Pacific.

Stern said he has always liked to discover new things. With few places on land to discover virgin territory, the seas were the logical place for Stern. Covering more than two-thirds of the earth's surface, there was no telling what mysteries the depths might reveal, he said.

Undersea volcanoes behave differently than those on land. Submarine volcanoes are actually more accessible to researchers since eruptions are confined by ocean pressure, Stern said.

"The volcanoes we are studying range from some that have been dead for a while to the ones that are still erupting," Stern said.

© UnknownUndersea volcano N/W Rota-1 is captured in a digital feed to the ship. The volcano has been active since 2006.

Stern's team monitored sites with remotely operated submarine vehicles (ROVs), which allowed them to study the sea floor and collect samples from a remote location.

"It's really a big advance over manned submersibles, because it's less dangerous," Stern said.

He said images from the ROV are clearer than images captured by manned submersibles because of a data link that lets scientists clearly see the bottom of the ocean.

Robeiro said operating the ROV is similar to playing a computer game.

"It's pretty interesting just watching the robot from the screen, picking up rock samples at the bottom of the sea", she said.

The researchers were building on previous research Stern had performed in the same area. They sampled N/W Rota-1, which has been active since 2006, the West Rota, which is no longer active and Tracey, a volcano never before explored by scientists.

Stern said West Rota had a steep inner crater called a caldera, similar to famous volcanoes at Crater Lake in Oregon and Krakatoa near Indonesia.

"This may have been an island originally, but it's now completely under water," Stern said.

Robeiro said the trips to the Western Pacific have allowed her to gain experience with technology and research methods that would have been impossible to learn picking up rocks on the earth surface.

The first part of the trip took the researchers about the distance between Dallas and Austin. Stern said he intends to return to the Pacific in the summer for a two-week continuation of research of the bottom of the ocean.