Scientists have discovered a massive deep-sea coral reef stretching at least 85 miles long off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina. The previously unknown reef sits in complete darkness about a half-mile below the ocean surface and is teeming with Lophelia pertusa, a stony coral species, and a variety of other hard and soft corals, several news outlets reported.
“This is a huge feature,” Erik Cordes, a deep-sea ecologist at Temple University and head of the scientific expedition that discovered the coral reef, told the Huffington Post. “It’s incredible that it stayed hidden off the U.S. East Coast for so long.”
Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration first detected a string of undersea mounds, dubbed Richardson Ridge, located 160 miles off the South Carolina coast, during year-long research expedition to survey the deep waters of the U.S. Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. Cordes and his colleagues went back to the ridge two months later as part of an expedition funded by NOAA, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and the U.S. Geological Survey to identify sensitive and important marine ecosystems that need safeguarding. During a seven-hour dive aboard the deep-sea submersible Alvin, the scientists found “just mountains of it,” Cordes said. “We couldn’t find a place that didn’t have corals.”
Lophelia pertusa, a reef building coral, was growing atop skeletons of old coral colonies, which indicate that the Richardson Ridge reef has been there for hundreds of thousands of years. The scientists say the reef likely plays a critical role in the health of the region’s fisheries and must be protected from oil and gas development.