Deep reef discovery confirmed by U.S.


Published: Monday, January 3, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 3, 2005 at 12:14 a.m.
ST. PETERSBURG - Florida-based marine researchers have discovered the deepest coral reef ever found in the United States.
The discovery in the Gulf of Mexico was confirmed in late December by the U.S. Geological Survey, which called it "a significant discovery that may be unique."
The reef lies in water that is about 250-feet deep, on Pulley Ridge, a vast area west of the Dry Tortugas. The reef, part of which is about 50 miles west of the Dry Tortugas, is as much as three miles wide and runs for about 20 miles.
It was tentatively identified as a coral reef in 1999 by a team of marine scientists from the University of South Florida, aboard the research vessel Bellows, based in St. Petersburg. But it took several more years of research to confirm it as a living reef that depends on light filtering down from the surface.
"The corals on Pulley Ridge are considerably healthier than corals from shallow-water reefs nearly worldwide, including the Florida Keys," the USGS said in a late December news release announcing the confirmation.
Although reefs form in the darkest ocean depths, Pulley Ridge is the deepest yet found that is "photosynthetic," depending on light filtered through clear water from the surface.
"We were all blown away by this bizarre, flat, living sea floor covered with blue and brown corals and lettuce-like green algae," research Bret Jarrett said of seeing live video from an unmanned submersible on one of the return research trips. They had expected to see some coral, but not that much, he told the St. Petersburg Times for a story in Sunday editions.
The video revealed a stunning number of fish, both deep and shallow water species: giant red grouper, scamp, damselfish, angelfish, rock beauty, hogfish and bass.
Other researchers include Al Hine of USF's College of Marine Science, Bob Halley of the USGS, and Stan Locker, a USF geophysicist.
Shallow-water reefs tend to grow vertically, like those off the Florida Keys. Pulley Ridge coral grows flat because it has adapted to the low light.
"Corals require light to grow, and so they spread out laterally as opposed to vertically," Jarrett said. "They've adapted to the situation, they've maximized the sunlight."
Officials who oversee the Gulf are now wondering how to preserve the reef in its pristine state, to keep it from being damaged by people who might want to exploit its riches.
"In the last 20 to 30 years, coral reefs have just taken a beating," Halley said of the health of other coral reefs, in general. "They're dying."
Halley has presented the group's research to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, which will decide in the coming months whether to restrict fishing or trawling in the area. A public hearing is scheduled for Tuesday in Key West.
Pulley Ridge has already been designated by the council as a Habitat Area of Particular Concern this year.
"I think it's in pretty good shape right now," Halley said. "But eventually, people will start impacting it if it's not protected in some way."

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