Depressurization and sample processing delays may impact the outcome of shipboard microbial incubations of samples collected from the deep sea. To address this knowledge gap, we developed a remotely operated vehicle (ROV)-powered incubator instrument to carry out and compare results from in situ and shipboard RNA stable isotope probing (RNA-SIP) experiments to identify the key chemolithoautotrophic microbes and metabolisms in diffuse, low-temperature venting fluids from Axial Seamount. All the incubations showed microbial uptake of labeled bicarbonate primarily by thermophilic autotrophic Epsilonbacteraeota that oxidized hydrogen coupled with nitrate reduction. However, the in situ seafloor incubations showed higher abundances of transcripts annotated for aerobic processes, suggesting that oxygen was lost from the hydrothermal fluid samples prior to shipboard analysis. Furthermore, transcripts for thermal stress proteins such as heat shock chaperones and proteases were significantly more abundant in the shipboard incubations, suggesting that depressurization induced thermal stress in the metabolically active microbes in these incubations. Together, the results indicate that while the autotrophic microbial communities in the shipboard and seafloor experiments behaved similarly, there were distinct differences that provide new insight into the activities of natural microbial assemblages under nearly native conditions in the ocean.