Scientists discovered 85 miles of deep-sea coral reef hidden off the US East Coast — here's what it looks like

  • Scientists working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently discovered a previously unknown coral reef off the US East Coast.
  • The 85-mile-long deep-sea reef is located approximately 160 miles east of Charleston, South Carolina.
  • Previous research pointed to the existence of the reef, but it had never been seen firsthand until last month.

The seafloor is one of the last unexplored regions of our watery planet. 

On a recent expedition dubbed Deep Search 2018, a group of ocean researchers discovered 85 miles of deep-sea coral reef off the coast of the southeastern US.

"Good news is too rare these days, and this is a victory that we can all share. We have found a pristine coral reef in our own backyard," Erik Cordes, the chief scientist on the expedition and a deep-sea ecologist at Temple University, wrote in a mission summary.

See life that thrives in coral reefs: 

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Marine life in coral reefs

A giant green turtle rests on a coral reef at a diving site near the island of Sipadan in Celebes Sea east of Borneo November 7, 2005.

(Peter Andrews / Reuters)

Golden butterflyfish (Chaetodon semilarvatus) swimming over coral reef with a large school of pygmy sweepers (Parapriacanthus guentheri) and soft corals (Dendronephthya sp.). Egypt, Red Sea.

(Georgette Douwma via Getty Images)

Pterois is a genus of venomous marine fish, commonly known as lionfish, native to the Indo-Pacific. Pterois, also called zebrafish, firefish, turkeyfish or butterfly-cod, is characterized by conspicuous warning coloration with red, white, creamy, or black bands, showy pectoral fins, and venomous spiky fin rays.

(Photo by Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images)

A pair of golden butterflyfish (Chaetodon semilarvatus), a pair of threadfin butterflyfish (Chaetodon auriga) and goldies or lyretail anthias (Pseudanthias squamipinnis). Egypt, Red Sea.

(Georgette Douwma via Getty Images_

School of Maldives

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The foxface rabbitfish (Siganus vulpinus) is a popular saltwater aquarium fish. It belongs to the rabbitfish family (Siganidae) and is sometimes still placed in the obsolete genus Lo.

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Details of fauna in the Coral Reef seen in Ripley's Aquarium. Coral reefs are underwater structures made from calcium carbonate secreted by corals. Coral reefs are colonies of tiny animals found in marine waters that contain few nutrients.

(Photo by Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Snapper and Sweetlips in Coral Reef, North Male Atoll, Maldives

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Clownfish in Bali, Indonesia

(Reinhard Dirscherl/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Yellow-ribbon Sweetlips between Soft Corals, Plectorhinchus polytaenia, Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia

(Photo by Reinhard Dirscherl/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Emperor Angelfish, Pomacanthus imperator, Himendhoo Thila, North Ari Atoll, Maldives

(Photo by Reinhard Dirscherl/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Shoal of Humpback Snapper, Lutjanus gibbus, Cocoa Corner, South Male Atoll, Maldives

(Photo by Reinhard Dirscherl/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Coralfishes on Coral Reef, North Ari Atoll, Maldives

(Photo by Reinhard Dirscherl/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Powder-blue surgeonfish (Acanthurus leucosternon) and Lyretail anthias (Pseudanthias squamipinnis) swimming past soft corals (Dendronephthya sp). Egypt, Red Sea.

(Georgette Douwma via Getty Images)

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Deep Search 2018, which took place from August 19 to September 2, was a collaborative project between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and the US Geological Survey. The goal of the expedition was to research — and safeguard — the little-understood habitats lurking off the US's populated East Coast. To collect new information about these deep-water habitats, scientists used a research ship called Atlantis from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

"We completed 11 dives in the human occupied vehicle (HOV) Alvin in the turbid parts of canyons, stunning cliff faces, bubbling gas seeps, and massive deep-sea coral reefs," Cordes wrote. "The information we have gathered will help us to understand these habitats and their dynamics."

Human Occupied Vehicle AlvinImage courtesy of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution/NOAA

But by far the biggest outcome of the mission, he said, was the discovery of the previously unknown reef. Cordes and expedition members first spotted the reef during an eight-hour dive on August 23. Cameras on the submersible Alvin captured live corals perched on large mounds of dead corals, indicating that this community has been thriving for centuries.

The 85-mile reef is located off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, approximately 160 miles east of Charleston. The corals were mostly Lophelia, a variety of deep-sea corals that grow in cold, Atlantic waters. Along with Lophelia, the team brought back samples of other coral varieties as well, including octocorals. 

"Many members of the Deep Search team will spend the coming months and years fully characterizing the significance of our August 23 dive, which revealed extensive, previously unconfirmed Lophelia reefs," the researchers wrote in a blog post following the discovery. 

Scientists knew from past research carried out by NOAA that deep-sea coral mounds existed in these waters, but they had never viewed the reefs firsthand. 

Deep Search 2018 deep sea coralCourtesy of Dan Fornari, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The Deep Search team created a three-minute time-lapse video of the eight-hour dive in which they discovered the coral reef. You can watch the footage here

Researchers will use the samples they collected to better understand these teeming deep-sea communities. Cordes told HuffPost the reef provides important habitat for a number of fish and coral species. 

But President Donald Trump's Administration has proposed rolling back bans on offshore oil drilling in the Atlantic, which could potentially impact this reef, according to a report from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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