Giant Deep Sea Coral Reef Discovered Off South Carolina Coast

A deep sea coral specimen that was discovered off the coast of East Timor. Nick Hobgood/Wiki Commons

It's not every day that you find a huge, previously undiscovered biological feature sitting right off a major U.S. coastline, but that's exactly what scientists manning the research vessel Atlantis stumbled upon while exploring some 160 miles off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina.

There, about a half mile below the ocean's surface, lies a dense forest of deep sea coral that stretches for at least 85 miles. It's a humongous ecosystem that has probably been developing for at least a few hundred thousand years.

“This is a huge feature,” said Erik Cordes, the expedition's chief scientist, to the Huffington Post. “It’s incredible that it stayed hidden off the U.S. East Coast for so long.”

“Just mountains of it,” he added. “We couldn’t find a place that didn’t have corals.”

The existence of the reef, which was initially flagged from sonar mapping, was officially confirmed using a pair of submersible dives. The expedition's original mission was to explore uncharted canyons, gas seeps and coral ecosystems off the Atlantic coast. No one thought that they'd find something like this, though.

The live corals are living upon giant mounds of rubble that were constructed by the corals that came before them. It's a massive piece of scaffolding that accumulates as corals die and leave their skeletal remains behind. Cordes estimates that coral has likely been growing here for millennia. He also predicts that the reef probably plays a keystone role in the region's fisheries. The team witnessed at least one giant swordfish cruising over the corals during their time in the submersible.

The find comes as the Trump administration is proposing an expansive offshore drilling plan that could stretch up and down the Atlantic coast. Researchers hope that their findings will stall those plans, or at least strengthen efforts to designate protected zones. Given that these coral reefs are a new, previously unstudied ecosystem, it's unclear just how sensitive the region's ecology might be to oil and gas exploration.

It's a remarkable discovery, and proof of just how little we know about the ocean's ecosystems. Hopefully it won't disappear before we get a chance to truly explore and understand this natural wonder.