Coral found growing at record depth on Gulf of Mexico platforms
FREEPORT, TEXAS - A team of federal and university scientists on a 10-day expedition in the Gulf of Mexico has discovered Lophelia coral growing deeper than previously seen anywhere in the Gulf. The overall goal of the mission, which left Freeport, Texas, on July 14 and returned to Pensacola, Fla. on July 24, was to examine coral ecosystems and related habitats that developed over several decades on or near actively producing deep-ocean oil and gas production platforms. Undersea structures supporting energy production platforms provide some of the scarce hard surfaces in the Gulf where a deep cold-water coral that lives where there is no sunlight, can grow.
Scientists imaged corals in both high-definition video and still photography and also took samples for DNA sequencing to better understand the biology, growth and distribution of deep-sea corals. Through cameras on a remotely operated vehicle used to survey coral growth on oil and gas platforms, scientists observed Lophelia coral at a depth of 2,620 ft (799 m) on undersea structures supporting the Ram Powell platform, which was built in 1997 and is one of the deepest platforms in the Gulf. The previous record depth for Lophelia in the Gulf was about 2,066 ft (630 m). Scientists also visited four other deepwater platforms.
“Finding Lophelia at this depth was very exciting for the whole team, especially for those of us who have been studying coral habitat for decades,” said Gregory Boland, a biological oceanographer in the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s (BOEM) Environmental Studies Program who has overseen this and other coral studies. “Our findings complement previous joint research on coral ecosystems and will help policy-makers manage and protect ocean resources on the Outer Continental Shelf.”
The expedition included scientists and technicians from BOEM, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) operating jointly under the National Oceanographic Partnership Program, which fosters the use of pooled federal resources such as funding, ships, equipment, and personnel to best meet agency and national priorities in ocean stewardship. Scientists from Temple, Pennsylvania State and Florida State universities were an integral part of the team.
For BOEM, the expedition was the culmination of a series of research missions taking place since 2002, when the bureau launched its first deepwater coral studies in the Gulf. The new data will be incorporated into a final report BOEM plans to publish in 2013. The bureau plans to monitor deepwater corals periodically through other studies it will undertake in the region.
Photos, videos and logs from the expedition are posted on NOAA’s ocean exploration website under the heading of “Lophelia II 2012: Deepwater Platform Corals.”