One of Earth's last frontiers lies off the Carolinas coast, on the cold, black ocean bottom 1,200 feet below the waves.
Scientists are just beginning to explore deep-water coral reefs, possibly millions of years old, that stretch from North Carolina to Florida. They form pristine oases, alive with fish, crabs and weird creatures that one researcher says “look like Dr. Seuss went crazy down there.”
The discoveries have caught the attention of the Bush administration, which is reported to be interested in protecting 25,000 square miles of reefs off the Southeast as a national monument.
President Bush also called this month for more offshore oil and gas exploration. A federal moratorium now prohibits drilling along most of the U.S. coastline until 2012, and political opposition in North Carolina remains strong. But momentum to lift the ban is growing with the price of gasoline.
Scientists say drilling, and to a greater extent deep-sea trawling, threaten deep-water corals worldwide. The risk in N.C. waters appears smaller: The reefs aren't in areas that have interested oil companies, and regulators have struck a potential balance with fishermen.
Still, a monument would forever protect a national treasure that scientists are just getting to know.
“We started out pretty much knowing almost nothing about those coral banks except that they existed,” says UNC Wilmington researcher Steve Ross.
Ross leads a multi-agency team of researchers who, since 2000, have made 65 dives to the deep reefs off the Southeastern coast. Locked into self-propelled, acrylic-domed craft called submersibles, they descend into darkness like astronauts in a lunar lander.
“Every time, it's just magical,” says educator Liz Baird of the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, who has made the 25-minute trip to the bottom a half-dozen times.
The turquoise water of the Gulf Stream deepens to blue and then black as the tiny craft descends, she says, leaving a trail of silver bubbles. On the bottom, the submersible's lights blink on amid tangled mounds of white coral, called Lophelia pertusa, the most common type off our coast. They remind Baird of laurel thickets in the N.C. mountains, but with spindly crabs waving their claws among the branches.
“I have not gotten enough of it,” she says of the dives. “Every one of them leaves me amazed at what I've seen, wanting to go again. It's such an undiscovered resource for North Carolina and really the United States. People know about the Grand Canyon, but they rarely hear about the Lophelia banks.”
Small wonder: No more than 40 people have ever seen them.
‘Into the wilderness'
Science, in fact, knows more about the surface of the moon than it does about the bottom of the Atlantic. Fewer than 100 square miles of the Southeastern coral reefs, believed to be nearly as large as South Carolina, have been properly mapped.
“We're going off into the wilderness, basically blind, just like Lewis and Clark in a sense,” Ross says. “In some cases, they knew more than we did.”
Like the better known, colorful reefs found in shallow, tropical waters, the stony mounds of deep-water corals attract a kaleidoscope of life.
In less than a decade, researchers have documented individual corals 2,500 years old, making them the oldest animals on Earth. They've found dozens of new species, from eels to sea stars.
Cancer-fighting and anti-inflammatory drugs extracted from deep-sea sponges and other reef animals are under development, and researchers expect to find more medicinal uses.
Scientists preoccupied with mapping the bottom and recording species are still trying to learn what larger role the coral reefs play in the oceans.
Among the reefs' most promising uses: as a living history of the seas. Some long-lived coral species form growth rings the way trees do. Their skeletons can reveal centuries of past water temperatures, pollutants and currents.
Deep-ocean currents have a profound effect on the world's climate. Understanding past patterns, researchers say, could provide insights into the future of a warming world.
Experts also know that deep reefs are fragile. The skeletons of dead corals, which can form mounds up to 1,000 feet tall, are hard but brittle. They grow slowly and don't recover easily, if at all, from disturbance.
One threat comes from ocean water itself, which is becoming more acidic as the seas absorb excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Acidic water can block corals' ability to build their calcium carbonate skeletons, slowing or stopping their growth.
Fishing trawlers have already reduced deep-sea coral reefs to rubble in much of the world, including Florida.
“If this happened on land, there would be outcry beyond belief,” says Murray Roberts, a Scotland-based coral expert on fellowship in Wilmington. “But the fact that these are hidden lets it go on.”
Deep-water coral reefs are found off continental shorelines worldwide. Those on the Southeast's Blake Plateau were discovered in the 1880s. Stretching for miles, those reefs are likely the most extensive in the country, Ross says.
Reaching them, especially in the ill-tempered weather off the Carolinas, took leaps of technology.
With a click of his computer mouse, Ross can now pull up fish-level views of the ocean bottom, a moonscape of undersea mountains, canyons and craters whipped by powerful currents.
Submersibles like those Ross and Baird have used to explore the bottom bristle with mechanical grabbing arms, cameras and suction devices to collect specimens.
Despite dozens of dives, Ross nearly always encounters something new – not all of it of research value. A territorial swordfish once attacked his submersible, its huge eye glaring through a porthole.
The reefs themselves are lush with invertebrates: urchins, anemones, sea stars. Crabs climb coral branches to poise with open claws, waiting for the current to bring small fish their way.
Fish once regarded as rare are common there. Of the 99 species identified – more than any other deep-sea coral reefs in the world – 19 percent had never been found at such depths or in this region. Three were entirely new to science.
Those findings came at a cost. A submersible-equipped research vessel costs $30,000 a day to book. After recent federal budget cuts, Ross says, “there's just not any money.”
“You're just so disappointed that you can't do more,” he says. “The money's not there, the time's not there. We're just scratching the surface.”
His next research focus will be the Gulf of Mexico, to help guide the management of oil and gas exploration there.
Threats to the reefs
Oil companies' interest in the N.C. coast in the late 1980s prompted scientific studies of The Point, a biologically rich area off Cape Hatteras that is outside the likely boundaries of a national monument. Eventually the research extended south, to a different ecosystem built around coral reefs.
Federal estimates say the Southeastern coast holds about 19 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, slightly less than the United States uses in a year. Its 1.9 billion barrels of oil would be enough to supply the nation for about three months.
Ross, a fish scientist who researched The Point years ago, says drillers now do a better job of controlling the mud and sediment that can bury life on the ocean bottom. Environmental studies would be required before any drilling begins, and federal policy allows no drilling into reefs.
More worrisome, scientists say, is the potential of fishing trawlers to raze the reefs. Deep-sea corals from New Zealand to Florida's Oculina Banks have been destroyed by the heavy, bottom-tilling nets.
Apart from fishing, interest in deep-water fish farming and undersea mining is also growing, says Douglas Rader, an N.C.-based scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund.
“The push is on to exploit deep water resources,” Rader says. “The important point is that today this ancient resource is more or less intact, and we have the opportunity to protect it against the full suite of development threats.”
Rader and other scientists believe there is an opportunity for preservation.
The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which oversees federal water, has proposed protecting reefs in four areas from North Carolina to Florida because the corals form important fish habitat.
The reefs are now only lightly fished, and the new rules would allow that to continue. But other commercially profitable fish, crabs and shrimp also live among the reefs and have yet to be tapped.
A final decision on the habitat designation is expected early next year.
More than 120 scientists petitioned the president last month to protect the reefs as a national monument. Federal law gives presidents the right to preserve “objects of scientific interest.”
Conservationists praised Bush for a national monument he named in 2006, a nearly 140,000-square-mile marine reserve in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Doing the same for the Southeastern reefs would protect them permanently and could increase research money.
Kristen Hellmer, a spokeswoman for the White House's Council on Environmental Quality, says “anything out there now is just an idea.”
The secrets of the coral reefs – their unknown benefits to people and planet – are what make their rich source of life worth protecting, Ross says. Preserve them, he says, for the same reason Americans protected the Florida Keys or the California redwoods: Because they might someday preserve us.