Lying just over 7,500 feet below the Gulf of Mexico, scientists have found a hidden garden of bamboo coral.
According to video published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, scientists haven’t seen anything like it in the Gulf of Mexico so far.
The government research group found the dense coral bed during a 23-day expedition aboard its Okeanos vessel. It’s the only federally funded vessel devoted entirely to oceanic research. Since mid-April, the group has been exploring features found in the Gulf, a deep-sea region NOAA says is little understood. Many of the expeditions, this one included, were made possible with remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) that transmit video signals via satellite to crews watching on deck.
Bamboo coral is common in deep waters where they grow in “forests,” but researchers were surprised to see the corals so densely clustered together at such an extreme depth. It was found near the west coast of Florida near a system of underwater canyons. The corals are able to grow even on steep cliff sides, and their fans are spread to catch the current and increase their chances of getting hit by food.
The expedition also logged a high density of sea sponges, which contained small aquatic animals like brittle stars, worms, and lobsters.
The coral garden is an example of how ecosystems can thrive in the deep sea’s daunting darkness. NOAA estimates that the structures could be nearly 1,000 years old. A host of conditions had to come together for the coral to grow so effectively. Coral feed on small organisms like zooplankton and algae and need stable conditions.
In addition to the coral garden discovered during the expedition, Okeanos explored regions with deep-sea fish, mud volcanoes, and shipwrecks in the waters sandwiched by Texas and west Florida.
NOAA’s expeditions are done to collect data and map key regions that could eventually play a role in shaping conservation policy. The organization has a livestream that showcases its most recent research.