Making up close to three-quarters of the Earth’s surface, our oceans give life to our blue planet. And not only do these vast expanses of water sustain every aspect of existence and influence our climates, but they are also a crucial part of global trade. Given the sheer collective size of Earth’s oceans, though, it’s perhaps no surprise that we still have much to learn about what lies underneath their depths. And new discoveries are being made to this day – including a very exciting one just off the coast of South Carolina.
Other incredible finds could follow in their wake, too, as it’s believed that in excess of 80 percent of the planet’s sprawling sub-aquatic world has yet to be investigated by humans. That’s partly why the Deep Search project was launched, as its aim is to discover once and for all what lies at the bottom of some of Earth’s waters.
And in August 2019 the Deep Search team made one of its most monumental discoveries to date while working around 150 miles from the South Carolina shoreline. You see, far below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, scientists found a previously unmonitored patch of practically pristine coral reef.
Scientifically speaking, coral reefs are sub-aquatic ecosystems that are made up of marine invertebrates known as corals. Most of these reefs are specifically comprised of stony corals that live in tightly-packed colonies of many singular but identical polyps. And these polyps emit calcium carbonate that solidifies into a tough substance to protect and support the corals.
Sometimes known as “underwater rainforests,” these reefs possess the most varied ecosystems to be found in our oceans. In fact, they’re thought to be the most biodiverse of all the Earth’s habitats, with at least one-quarter of marine species thought to rely on reefs for shelter or food.
These facts are even more extraordinary when you consider that coral reefs cover less than 1 percent of the planet’s surface and no more than 2 percent of the seafloor. But while these ecosystems may be small in the grand scheme of things, they nevertheless play an important role in the overall health of our planet.
Given their biodiversity, you see, coral reefs are able to feed millions of people. They also contain the source materials of vital medicines and form barriers against bad weather. And the reefs have even helped create jobs in the tourism and fishing sectors; indeed, it’s estimated that more than 25 percent of the planet’s low-scale fishing businesses use these areas as their hunting grounds.
Yet while coral exists across the world’s oceans – including in the cold climes near the Alaskan shore – reefs actually fare better in areas where temperatures are higher, depths are smaller and there’s plenty of sunlight. And, famously, the biggest example on Earth is the Great Barrier Reef, which extends for around 1,400 miles off the coast of Queensland in Australia.
Unfortunately, though, even the Great Barrier Reef isn’t immune to the greatest threats that face colonies of coral today. One of the biggest problems surrounding the reefs is what’s known as coral bleaching. This phenomenon is caused by rising ocean temperatures that are, in turn, a symptom of climate change.
Other dangers to the world’s coral reefs include excessive fishing and the acidification of seawater. A rise in ocean levels of phosphorus and nitrogen is also having a negative effect on these ecosystems, as is the sunscreen that has been deposited in our oceans.
Sadly, then, coral reefs are in decline across the globe. Indeed, in some places, species of the marine invertebrates have died out almost completely, while in other locations reefs have shrunk dramatically when compared to the vibrant ecosystems that they once were. And as a result, the race is on to protect and revitalize these precious habitats before they’re lost forever.
Most worryingly of all, half of the world’s coral has disappeared over the past three decades alone. And should the trend continue until our coral reefs disappear, the effects could be catastrophic. Billions of marine species would be damaged, for instance, as would global trade.
In addition, the destruction of coral reefs would send the global fishing industry – an employer of close to 40 million people – into disarray. We would also lose many medicines that rely upon the ingredients found in these environments. And the disruption that the eradication of these ecosystems would have on both biodiversity and the food chain would likely cause a vast number of other issues.
Then there’s coral reefs’ role as natural coastal flood defenses. In total, reefs safeguard over 200 million people from the forces of the oceans as they offset approximately 97 percent of a wave’s power. And constructing replacements that offer a similar degree of shelter would be a very costly affair, commanding a price of around $2.5 million for just a single mile.
With all that in mind, then, we must act to save our reefs. And, fortunately, some work is at least being done to investigate the state of the biggest bodies of water on our planet. Most notably, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (OER) has focused solely on sub-aquatic exploration. Thanks to the OER, in fact, we’re learning more about our oceans than ever before.
The OER’s primary goal is to venture off the beaten track and explore parts of the ocean that have previously been ignored. The organization uses cutting-edge technology to map the ocean floor, for instance. And with the data that the OER gathers, it establishes new lines of scientific inquiry in order to better understand the ocean environment.
Then, in August 2018, scientists working on the OER’s Deep Search mission made one of their most important discoveries so far. This program was initially established to explore the deep-water environments found off the coast of the U.S. in the south and middle of the Atlantic. But as the project’s team members descended beneath the ocean’s surface, little did they know what they would find lying below.
In particular, this incredible find was made by researchers on board the Okeanos Explorer. After they had left Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in August 2018, you see, the team had been delving beneath the surface by utilizing a tool called Alvin – a submersible that’s capable of carrying humans into the depths below.
And although he was unaware of exactly what lay at the bottom of the ocean, in August 2018 the team’s lead scientist Erik Cordes nonetheless told HuffPost that he had good feelings about the Deep Search mission. Cordes, who works at Temple University in Philadelphia, revealed, “I know we’re going to find something that no one’s ever seen before… Those are the moments that I love.”
It seems that Cordes’ optimism wasn’t completely unfounded, either, as just a week after his prediction, the Deep Search team uncovered something astonishing near to the South Carolina shoreline. There, around 2,500 feet underwater, lay a previously undiscovered coral reef.
That said, the existence of the reef had first been revealed in May and June 2018 following a high-tech mapping exercise. The Okeanos Explorer crew had themselves uncovered this information after a series of peaks were seen across the ocean floor. And just by looking at these features, Deep Search scientists were almost convinced that they’d discovered coral.
Furthermore, given the data from these newly constructed maps, the researchers suspected that there was a significant quantity of coral below the water. It appeared, in fact, that the reef stretched for 85 linear miles – or maybe even more – off America’s East Coast. “This is a huge feature,” Cordes told HuffPost in 2018. “It’s incredible that it stayed hidden off the U.S. East Coast for so long.”
Then the coral reef’s existence was later confirmed following two submersible dives. On board Alvin were Cordes, coral scientist Cathy McFadden and submersible pilot Bruce Strickrott, who together successfully retrieved samples of wide variety of coral. And after seeing the reef with his own eyes, Cordes described the discovery as “unbelievable.”
Cordes was particularly struck by the amount of Lophelia pertusa that was present at the location. You see, while this stony species of coral is common in the Gulf of Mexico – another place where Cordes had previously conducted research – he’d never seen anything to the extent of the colonies of Lophelia near South Carolina. “[There were] just mountains of it,” Cordes told HuffPost. “We couldn’t find a place that didn’t have corals.”
Lophelia pertusa is a variety of coral that can be found in cold waters. And while the species is known to live at depths of anywhere from around 250 feet to 10,000 feet below the surface, it’s primarily seen thriving at between 700 and 3,250 feet beneath sea level – distances that sunlight is unable to reach. In particular, Lophelia pertusa is known to grow in the North Atlantic waters, the Alboran Sea and the Caribbean Sea.
And during the summer of 2018, Cordes and his colleagues on board the Okeanos Explorer studied a large number of these deep-sea mounds – all of them abundant with coral. The living organisms were often found above large rubble piles, with these heaps actually made up of previous generations of coral on which new organisms were thriving.
Then, over the years, these masses had grown closer together to form a ridge around 300 feet in height. In fact, the mounds covered more ground than the Deep Search team could have ever predicted. And given the sheer scale of the structures, it was possible that corals had actually been there for hundreds of thousands of years.
Furthermore, the discovery came as a big surprise to Sandra Brooke, who is a coral ecologist from Florida State University. After exploring the area on a dive herself, she would go on to describe the sight of the reef as “incredible” when talking to HuffPost.
Why was Brooke so amazed at the discovery? Well, although Lophelia coral had previously been found near North Carolina and Florida, it hadn’t been known to survive at depths of beyond 2,000 feet. It wasn’t just the location of the coral that stunned experts, either; the reefs were also further offshore than is typical.
Plus, the discovery of the coral came at a critical time from a political point of view. More specifically, the find had emerged shortly after President Donald Trump had announced his intentions of expanding offshore drilling in the Pacific, Arctic and Atlantic Oceans. Trump put the proposed plan forward along with Ryan Zinke, his interior secretary, in January 2019. And if it’s to go ahead, it will make nine-tenths of the coastal waters under U.S. jurisdiction vulnerable to such procedures.
While announcing the intended oil drilling expansion, Zinke promised to “strike the right balance to protect… coasts and people while still powering America and achieving American energy dominance.” There’s hope, though, that the Deep Search coral discovery may have some impact on subsequent drilling developments.
Cordes has at least made his own position on the matter clear, as according to HuffPost he has stressed the need to protect the newfound Atlantic coral reef from offshore developments. The scientist has witnessed for himself how sea life interacts with the ecosystem, and it seems that he is in little doubt of its importance in the wider ocean habitat.
Now, following the discovery of the South Carolina coral, Deep Search scientists plan to devote years to further exploration of the area. In particular, as coral reefs generally teem with diversity, the researchers would likely investigate which communities of creatures rely on the intricate natural environment for sustenance.
And the significance of the Atlantic coral was briefly discussed by the Deep Search team in a video posted on the official OER YouTube channel in August 2018. In the clip, Cordes recalls of the discovery, “It was coral rubble for as far as the eye could see and live coral up on top. A cover of live coral I’ve only seen in a couple of places. It’s a lot of living, growing reef.”
Cordes continues, “So, now that we know this is here… the possibilities for where Lophelia could be forming reefs are now bigger than they used to be. That’s a real fundamental change in how we do exploration. It’s brand new. This is really different to anything we’ve seen before.”
One way in which the North Carolina coral reef differed from other sites that Cordes had uncovered during his career were the conditions in which it existed. “The temperature profile is really weird here,” he says in the YouTube video. “And in a lot of ways, that suggests to us that there are a lot more connections to shallow water than we would expect at 700 meters [2,296 feet].”
Indeed, despite the depth of the coral reef, it was in no way isolated from the rest of the ocean’s ecosystems. “All those waters are mixed,” Cordes explains. “Everything that’s happening up at the surface is very quickly being translated to 700 meters. We see swordfish swimming all over them, you know. There are these big fish coming down to interact with these habitats.”
So while there’s still so much to learn about deep-sea coral populations in the Atlantic, the discovery of such an unspoiled ecosystem is an exciting one. Ultimately, you see, it may help scientists better understand how reefs operate and help save these unique and important habitats for generations to come.
In the YouTube video, Cordes speaks briefly about such work, saying, “The ultimate goal of Deep Search is to be able to inform the management agencies about the importance of this habitat. Then they can protect them… [and] limit as much as possible the human impacts in what are still relatively pristine coral reefs.”
And just at a time when coral reefs across the world are under threat, the discovery of a new, relatively healthy example is something very special indeed. Cordes likes to think so, anyway. “You know, there aren’t many [pristine coral reefs] left on Earth, and we just found a really big one,” he says. “This is huge. This is a really big finding. I’m thrilled.”