EX1806_IMG_20180621T200026Z_ROVHD_CC.jpg (copy)

The Okeanos Explorer remote sub dives earlier this summer found deep sea coral beds off South Carolina with dense living populations of the deep sea coral more than half a mile deep. Provided by the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research

A researcher's claim of finding a new, huge coral bed in the deep sea off South Carolina isn't quite true. Researchers have known for years something like that is out there.

But the remote sub dives 160 miles off Charleston last week did provide a "ground truth" that the bed is as big as some had claimed.

Erik Cordes, a Temple University ecology biologist leading the combined federal and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution exploration, estimated the bed to be 85 miles long.

It lies a mile deep with mounds that climb as high as a football field is long. Coral are living creatures, and the bed likely is thousands of years old.

The research is a follow-up to a voyage earlier this summer of the Okeanos Explorer, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research ship.

The Okeanos spent three weeks off the Southeast coast surveying and videoing the bottom as far out as 100 miles, with College of Charleston geology professor Leslie Sautter aboard as the marine geology leader.

Its remote sub dives found ribs of seafloor high ground replete with coral beds and other exotic creatures, along with striking rock formations and spewing methane vents.

+1 
Windows to the Deep 2018: Exploration of the Southeast U.S. Continental Margin (copy)

Sponges, corals, urchins and other organisms populate outcrops of hard substrate on the seafloor off South Carolina. NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research/Provided

"A lot of this has been known for a long time," said Scott Harris, a College of Charleston geologist and one of a number of researchers for whom the Okeanos trip did research.

The current dives "are ground-truthing it. Every time we go into deep water, it significantly enhances what we know," Harris said.

The new find is the difference between discovery and exploration, said Andrew Bowen, a Woods Hole engineer in charge of the robot sub.

"You can discover the moon by stepping outside, but until you put your feet on it, you haven't really explored it," Bowen said.

Coral reefs are vital to keeping oceans healthy, and they're important for human health, according to NOAA. They are the spawning ground for the baseline food species that feed fish and for the fish themselves. Organisms found in corals have produced compounds that fight antibiotic-resistant infections, among other medicines.

"They are critical to the deepwater ecosystem as we understand it today," Bowen said. "It's remarkable there is such a large resource essentially in our front garden, the knowledge of which is still quite poor. It's as if you didn't know you had that tree or that shrub out there."

The find comes as Scripps Institute of Oceanography research in the Pacific indicates deep sea beds also are susceptible to the warming water-induced bleaching that is killing shallow water reefs.

It also comes as federal officials review permitting oil and natural gas exploration and drilling offshore South Carolina that could include the same bottom where the bed lies. The review is looking at environmental impacts of exploration work.

Anti-oil drilling advocates quickly seized on the find as one more reason not to open the Southeast bottom to drilling.

"What else is out there that we don’t know about?" asked Frank Knapp, president of the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce. "The marine life — mammals, fish, crustaceans, corral — hold no value to these exploiters of the ocean’s resources that belong to all of us. All are just collateral damage to the pursuit of profits."

Reach Bo Petersen Reporter at Facebook, @bopete on Twitter or 1-843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.