Sometimes you're out searching for something small and seemingly unremarkable (like some baby lobsters) and you inadvertently discover something huge and extraordinary. Like a cluster of 50-million-year-old extinct volcanoes.

That's precisely what happened to a group of Australian researchers when they set out to find the nursery grounds of larval lobsters off the coast of Sydney last month. In the process, the team discovered four extinct volcanoes hidden almost five kilometres beneath the ocean's surface. 

The discovery was made possible by the superior sonar-mapping power of Australia's new ocean-going research vessel Investigator, which gave the scientists a glimpse of previously uncharted reaches of the sea floor. While searching for the lobster nursery grounds, the ship had also been carrying out some routine mapping. "It's a kick-arse ship. We should be so proud of it," marine biologist Iain Suthers, who led the expedition, tells The Sydney Morning Herald.

The largest of the undersea calderas (the huge craters that form after land collapses in a volcanic eruption) has some pretty impressive dimensions: it spans 1.5 kilometres across the rim and towers 700 metres off the sea floor! 

But the expedition also uncovered exciting finds on a much smaller scale. “The voyage was enormously successful. Not only did we discover a cluster of volcanoes on Sydney’s doorstep, we were amazed to find that an eddy off Sydney was a hotspot for lobster larvae at a time of the year when we were not expecting them,” Suthers says.

Larval Lobster 2015 07 16
One of the larval lobster specimens collected during the expedition. Image: Marine National Facility

The other fishy specimens collected during the expedition are a veritable lineup of deep-sea creepiness: an impressively fanged viperfish (family Chauliodontidae); a type of snaketooth fish (or "swallower", named for its ability to swallow prey larger than itself); and the serpent-like black dragonfish of the genus Idiacanthus (the eyes of its larvae are carried on long stalks!).

Larval Fish Idiacanthidae 2015 07 16
Black dragonfish of the genus Idiacanthus.
Larval Fish Melanostomiidae 2015 07 16
Larval fish from the family Melanostomiidae. Image: Marine National Facility
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A viperfish (family Chauliodontidae). Image: Marine National Facility
Black Dragonfish 2015 07 16
The scaleless blackfish. Image: Marine National Facility/Derrick Cruz
Chiasmodontidae _larval Fish _2015_07_17
Snaketooth fish larvae (Chiasmodontidae). Image: Marine National Facility

For more on these finds, visit the CSIRO blog.