Deep sea explorers have discovered an “extensive, previously unconfirmed” 85-mile-long reef off South Carolina, with “mounds” of coral more than 300 feet high, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Some sections of the reef — 160 miles off Charleston — could be thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years old, said NOAA, which helped organize the expedition.
A dive team hovered over the site Aug. 23-24 in a submersible and “observed continuous live reef or coral rubble” for nearly eight hours, said a NOAA mission report.
“Just mountains of it,” the project’s chief scientist Erik Cordes told the Huffington Post. “We couldn’t find a place that didn’t have corals.”
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The reef flourishes in a world of complete darkness a half mile down, where temperatures are a constant 9 degrees, officials said.
NOAA says the submersible team went down to the area not knowing what to expect, after a sea floor mapping project done earlier this year found a series of mysterious mounds in the region. Those mounds turned out to be “coral structures,” NOAA says.
“When the lengths of all of the mound features and probable reefs in the region are combined, the Deep Search team estimates that there’s approximately 85 linear miles of Lophelia reef,” said a statement from NOAA.
Lophelia is a type of cold-water coral that grows continuously over thousands of years, with each new growth piled over the “skeletal remains of previous generations,” according to Lophelia.org.
The discovery proves that the coral is growing farther off shore and deeper than scientists ever imagined, NOAA says. Researchers collected samples of at least four different coral species at the site and could spend years studying them, officials said.
NOAA says the find is important for multiple reasons, including the fact that coral reefs serve as a home for countless sea creatures and balance the deep sea ecosystem.
The find has also provided scientists with a mystery still to be solved, NOAA says: Did they find only a small part of something that is much bigger, running the length of the entire east coast?
NOAA says the project is part of a four-year study with scientists from seven universities, as well as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the U.S. Geological Survey.