A team of researchers stumbled upon an 85 mile stretch of coral reef off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina. They'll be exploring the reef and studying its ecosystem for months (and years) to come.
With a research vessel named Alvin leading the charge, researchers from Massachusetts knew they would find something in their recent excursion. But not even expedition chief scientist Erik Cordes could've guessed the vessel would discover something so large.
“This is a huge feature,” Cordes said in an interview with Huffington Post. “It’s incredible that it stayed hidden off the U.S. East Coast for so long.”
The find was found just 160 miles away from one of the United States's oldest and most studied pre-colonial cities.
Going Deep for the Accidental Find
The research team with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration worked with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the United States Geological Survey. For 15 days, they worked aboard a massive vessel called the Atlantis, and used a submersive vehicle called Alvin to deep dive.
“Just mountains of it,” Cordes said as a crew worked to secure Alvin back on the ship’s deck. “We couldn’t find a place that didn’t have corals.”
Alvin took the researchers down to explore the area for 8 hours of sampling. The team loaded up with samples of Lophelia, Enallopsammia, Madrepora, with the Lophelia being the coral most look to study further. As Lophelia grows older and dies, the new Lophelia grows directly over and through the skeletons of the dead coral. This helped the coral reef stretch significantly further than anyone on the research team expected, they admitted in a recent post.
Sandra Brooke is a coral ecologist who is no stranger to some of the most popular coasts and corals in the world. Brooke works as an ecologist at Florida State University, and she was part of the team that dove in the vessel for the find.
“It’s kind of thrown my mental image of what the reefs out here look like for a loop,” Brooke said.
Administrative Changes Could Affect Find
The discovery come as part of a larger government effort called Deep Search. However, the timing of the discovery hits alongside plans from the Donald Trump administration that could affect the area. If enacted, Trump's offshore drilling plan would allow companies to explore wide expanses of ocean for oil.
However, according to Cordes, that was not the main directive of the NOAA team at all. They wanted to identify and safeguard these precious reef habitats -- particularly the unexpected ones. Cordes said these aquatic environment deserve to be further explored, protected from government forces, and also saved from gas developers.
“It doesn’t get more direct than that,” Cordes said. “There’s a reason they’re down there.”
Certain sections of the government's Bureau of Ocean Management have agreed that this find -- while deserving of further exploration -- does not deserve to be exploited for oil and gas decisions.
The study "could be useful in pre-leasing or post-leasing [oil and gas] decisions, such as those affecting sensitive habitats that are the focus of this study," a spokesperson for the BOEM said in an interview.