Ocean Currents

Unmasking the Great Unknowns of Deep-Water Corals


When you hear the words “coral reef” what do you think of? Aquamarine waters? Colorful tropical fish? Palms trees swaying in the sun?

The above video released last week on Quest KQED is an amazing story and whole new view on ocean corals found in the deep, dark, cold waters off the California coast.

Until recently only a handful of scientists had seen the coldwater corals and other bizarre and beautiful creatures that inhabit the Davidson Seamount – an underwater volcano standing more than 7,500 feet above the ocean floor nearly 75 miles off the California coast. That’s because the summit of the Davidson Seamount is still 4,000 feet below the surface of the ocean, in very cold, very dark water. Though the seamount was first discovered way back in 1933, it wasn’t until a decade or so ago that scientists first sent unmanned Remotely Operative Vehicles (ROV) down to explore the area.

What they found was remarkable: anemones that open and close like Venus flytraps; a rare angler fish known as a “deepsea toad” that looks like a hairy red balloon with a lure on its forehead that it uses to attract prey; pink bubble gum corals 10 feet tall (and hundreds of years old) and literally forests of sea sponges. Why is this deep undersea volcano teeming with life? Turns out the steep sides of the seamount position the creatures that inhabit it perfectly to snare nutrients and plankton passing by, pushed up from deep sea currents.

After the first major scientific expedition to the Davidson Seamount back in 2002, Ocean Conservancy joined with scientists and others in a several year campaign to protect this amazing area. In 2009, our efforts successfully resulted in inclusion of the Seamount and its surrounding waters within the within the boundaries of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. As a result the area will be permanently protected from oil drilling, mining and harmful fishing practices like bottom trawling.

Unfortunately, no part of the ocean, not even the deepwater of the Davidson Seamount, is entirely pristine. Scientists studying the area found evidence of ocean acidification, the toxic legacy pesticide DDT and even an empty soda bottle.

It’s been said we know more about the dark side of the moon than about the 70% of our planet that is the ocean. Indeed, less than 1% of the Davison Seamount has been studied so far. I for one can’t wait to see what the next expedition unearths.

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