Huge Deep Sea Coral Reef Discovered Off Atlantic Coast

Surprise! 85 miles of coral reef discovered off coast of Charleston.

September 6, 2018

Forest of cold water coral found off the coast of Charleston

Scientists thought they might make some new discoveries when they set out on a two-week research mission to explore and study deep ocean ecosystems off the Atlantic Coast. It didn’t take long. Roughly 160 miles off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, they discovered a dense forest of cold-water coral.

The reef lies about a half mile below the surface. It’s estimated to extend for about 85 miles. The discovery was made during the course of an almost eight-hour dive by Alvin, a deep-sea submersible owned by the U.S. Navy but operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

“This is a huge feature and it’s unlike anything I’ve seen before,” said Erik Cordes, a deep-sea ecologist and professor at Temple University. “It’s incredible that it has stayed hidden off the east coast for so long.”

Cordes describes mountains of Lophelia pertusa, a stony coral species, plus a variety of other hard and soft corals. That type of coral is known to live in shallower water off the U.S. coast from Florida to North Carolina. But the new reef was covered with thriving ghost white Lophelia that appeared to be thriving. 

"We couldn’t find a place that didn’t have coral,” adds Cordes. “It’s exciting to find something so significant and something that profoundly changes our concept of where these habitats can exist.”

The live corals grow atop giant mounds of rubble, the skeletal remains of earlier coral colonies. It’s estimated the Atlantic coral structures could be hundreds of thousands of years old. The discovery comes as the Trump administration is proposing opening the coast to deep sea oil drilling. Cordes said the complex and diverse habitat must be protected from development and he has little doubt the reef is critical for the productivity of regional fisheries.

Cameras captured photos of large schools of fish living amongst the coral. The research is part of an ongoing ocean study of uncharted canyons, gas seeps and deep-sea ecosystems funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.