Discovered hydrothermal vents in the Atlantic; helped make IMAX film 'Volcanoes of the Deep Sea'

Rona and Alvin
Peter Rona, about to descend to the ocean bottom in the submersible Alvin. Rona once reckoned he may have spent more time on the ocean bottom in such submersibles than any other marine scientist.
Photo: Peter Rona

Peter Rona, renowned for his deep-sea exploration, died on Feb. 20 of  complications of multiple myeloma.  He was 79 years old.

Rona, professor of marine science and earth and planetary sciences at Rutgers since 1994, spent 25 years as a scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration before he came to Rutgers. During his time at NOAA, Rona led the expedition that first discovered deep-sea hot springs and their associated life forms in the Atlantic Ocean. He discovered that the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the great tectonic boundary that runs from north of Iceland to the Southern Ocean contains hydrothermal vents which host communities of animals unknown to science until then.

Between 1999 and 2003, Rona and his Rutgers colleague Richard Lutz, now director of the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences in the School of Environmenal and Biological Sciences at Rutgers, served as science directors of Volcanoes of the Deep Sea, an IMAX film that took viewers down to deep-sea vents in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. “We brought Hollywood lighting and camera technology to the deep sea-floor to clearly illuminate for the first time the spectacular hot springs and their strange ecosystems for the public to see, from school children to the delegates to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” Rona said.  The film has since been seen by 165 million people around the world.

“Peter was a treasured friend of over 40 years and one of the finest and most honorable gentlemen I have known,” Lutz said.] “His contributions to deep-sea science have been immense. We’ve lost one of the true giants in the field and he will be missed.”

From 1999 to 2003, Peter Rona and his colleague, Richard Lutz, were technical advisers to the makers of Volcanoes of the Deep Sea, which took audiences to the bottom of the Atlantic with Rona and his colleagues. Worldwide, 165 million people have seen this IMAX film.

Peter Arnold Rona was born in Trenton on August 17, 1934. “I was one of those kids who collected rocks and minerals, climbed mountains, loved the outdoors and identified with geology from early on,” Rona told a Rutgers publication in 2006. “I pursued a path to explore the oceans, the last frontier on Earth, starting as an apprentice in a laboratory at Columbia University that studied the physics of sound in the sea. Going to sea for nine months of the year, I was hooked.”

Rona once reckoned he might have spent more time in submersibles on the bottom of the ocean than any other marine scientist.  Asked what a trip in a submersible was like, he answered, “Cramped and cold – but wonderful, just the same.” The experience was so fascinating, however, Rona said, that he usually forgot how cramped and cold he was.

Throughout his teaching career, Rona acted as a talent spotter for future marine scientists and engineers. He convinced many bright but undecided young people to follow his path to sea -- among them, Donglai Gong, now assistant professor of marine science at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. In 2004, sitting in on Rona's class on hydrothermal vents after getting a master's degree in physics, Gong asked what Rona thought were particularly intelligent questions, and found himself the object of a full-court press to go into marine science. “He encouraged me to contact the people at IMCS and think about doing a Ph.D. in marine sciences,” Gong recalled. “I did. And that’s made all the difference.”

Rona and AUV
Peter Rona with an autonomous underwater vehicle he used for his studies of the Hudson Canyon, off the coast of New Jersey, in 2009 and 2011.
Photo: Donglai Gong

Rona published more than 250 scientific papers in his career and edited five books. He was the recipient of the Shepard Medal for Excellence in Marine Geology, the Petterson Bronze Medal of the Swedish Academy of Sciences and the U.S. Department of Commerce Gold Medal for exceptional scientific contributions to the nation.

Peter Rona’s wife of more than 40 years, Donna Rona, died in 2013. He leaves his daughter, Jessica.

Media contact: Ken Branson, O: 848-932-0580,