The team efforts of scientists and crew from the Waitt Institute for Discovery, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute have paid off with the recent discovery of three never-before identified Lophelia coral reefs which were located 35 miles off the coast of Florida and 450 metres deep. The CATALYST ONE expedition which kicked-off on December 4 combined the scientific expertise of Harbor Branch's senior research professor, John Reed, with Waitt Institute's cutting edge autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and Woods Hole's high-tech operations skills. The discovery of the first two deep coral reefs occurred during the first dive of the expedition on 5 December. The third Lophelia coral reef was discovered by the AUVs on 7 December after the re-positioning of Harbor Branch's research vessel Seward Johnson to the expedition's third survey site.
'Lophelia corals are found in the deeper ranges of the Straits of Florida, but it is still not clear how extensive these reefs are,' said Reed.
Vulnerable to bottom trawling fishing equipment that can turn a healthy reef into lifeless rubble, the CATALYST ONE expedition accomplished its objective to survey, map and identify areas that contain deep coral reefs. With this newly acquired information, Reed will submit these findings to the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council to provide further data for their proposed Deep Coral Habitat Area of Particular Concern (HAPC) to protect these fragile reefs. Reed has studied the deep coral reefs off Florida's coast for more than 30 years, and he is largely responsible for gathering supporting data to make the case for the marine protected areas that now exist to protect the shallower Oculina coral reefs that are found 15 to 20 miles off Florida's east coast.
The state-of-the-art REMUS 6000 AUV vehicles, developed by Woods Hole and operated in partnership with the Waitt Institute, provided the essential tools necessary to survey large areas of the ocean bottom in order to locate these reefs. The REMUS vehicles are capable of carrying two kinds of sonar and a camera to map the ocean floor by tracking back and forth over the bottom. Following along a pre-programmed track, these vehicles move in a manner similar to mowing a lawn. At the end of a mission, which can last up to 18 hours, the vehicles are recovered on the RV Seward Johnson and all data are downloaded, processed and analysed to produce a mosaic of pictures of the bottom. When pieced together, the mosaics form the most detailed, high-definition pictures of the ocean bottom that exist today.
'This brief, seven day mission revealed spectacular data about the relatively unknown deep water reefs just off our coast,' said Reed. 'It was exciting to see these two new AUV vehicles work under some very difficult conditions, and there is no doubt that the combined efforts of the Waitt Institute, the AUV crew from Woods Hole, the sonar team, and our ship and crew from Harbor Branch made this expedition a success.'
At times during the expedition, scientists and crew experienced 30 knot winds, eight foot seas and two knot currents on the ocean bottom but were still able to follow their planned tracks flawlessly over the these rugged reefs.
'Rarely do scientific expeditions produce solid results this quickly,' said Dr Shirley Pomponi, executive director of Harbor Branch. 'This is a big win for the resource managers tasked with protecting these reefs and proof that cutting edge technology combined with the seamless teamwork of the three organisations involved in CATALYST ONE can accelerate the pace of discovery.'