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Stevej72
07-22-2006, 09:02 PM
New reefs discovered off Florida's coast
BY NICHOLAS SPANGLER AND CURTIS MORGAN
cmorgan@MiamiHerald.com

M. CARROLL/HARBOR BRANCH
Submersible sphere the Sea-Link II just over the newly-discovered reefs that run east from the Miami Terrace to Bimini.
More photos
ABOARD THE R/V SEWARD JOHNSON -- Twenty small buckets of shivering-cold seawater held the treasures of the latest expedition into the deep unknown.

Shirley Pomponi, fresh from collecting specimens more than 1,000 feet below the Atlantic Ocean, made the assorted sponges and soft corals -- little more than shapeless, sand-colored lumps to the untrained eye -- sound like rare gems.

''Gorgeous. Oh, beautiful goblets, just gorgeous,'' gushed Pomponi, president of Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, as she examined a haul that included what might be a new species of bamboo coral. ``It's a richer area than we thought, for sure.''

After two months of dives aboard a specially equipped sub, scientists have emerged enthralled by the strange and beautiful seascapes they're discovering in the largely unexplored deep waters between South Florida and the Bahamas.

These are reefs of stunning variety long secreted by crushing depths, 1,000 to nearly 3,000 feet down.

That's so deep that water so blue at the surface turns sunless black. The only light, when the sub switches off its piercing xenon arc beams, comes from the eerie glow of bottom dwellers, a natural attribute called bioluminescence.

For Harbor Branch biomedical researchers such as Pomponi, the deep reefs may yield new sources of chemicals to combat cancer, Alzheimer's disease or other illnesses.

For scientists from the University of Miami, University of Florida and other schools and agencies, the dives have provided a ground-breaking glimpse of an expansive system of uncharted and largely unknown deep reefs in the Florida Straits.

QUESTIONS ABOUND

Mark Grasmueck, an assistant professor of applied geophysics at UM's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, whose work with cutting-edge sonar helped pinpoint the new sites, said the discovery of so much deep life has scientists asking themselves a lot of questions.

''How does a reef like this sustain itself without sunlight, without obvious energy and nourishment?'' he said. ``It's a unique ecosystem.''

Scientists have closely studied the declining health of the shallow coral reefs in the Florida Keys for decades, but have had only sketchy ideas of what might exist in the Straits, a formidable passage between the Keys and Cuba swept by the powerful current of the Gulf Stream.

In the 1970s, researchers dredged up fragments of corals in a deep-water survey as far south as Key West, but the crude technique only hinted at what might be there. There have been ongoing explorations -- most actively by Fort Pierce-based Harbor Branch -- but finding promising spots has been both time-consuming and hit-and-miss.

''The problem has been we don't really have good high-resolution maps of the deeper waters,'' Grasmueck said.

In December, Grasmueck and UM colleague Gergor Eberli, a geologist, set out to chart the depth with technology most often used by offshore energy companies in the Gulf of Mexico to repair and locate undersea pipelines and oil and gas rigs.

The key to better charts was a robotic torpedo packed with advanced sonars, sensors and cameras, designed to propel itself close to the ocean floor -- offering precise images of bottom contours no shipboard scanning gear can approach.

''It's like a fish full of computers,'' Grasmueck said.

Last month, researchers set out on Harbor Branch's 204-foot research vessel to ''ground truth'' the new maps off Bimini and along a coral bank called the Miami Terrace, which stretches roughly from Boca Raton to Miami about 15 to 20 miles off the coast.

They've gone down, four at a time, in Harbor Branch's Johnson-Sea-Link II submersible. The size of two Hummers stacked atop each other, the sub looks like some monster mechanical bug on deck, bristling with an array of manipulator arms, suction devices and rotary plankton samplers framing a five-inch-thick acrylic observation bubble. But its agile enough underwater to pluck fragile corals from the seabed.

What they've seen -- thanks to a lighting system that brings to the dark world a near-daylight glow -- has surprised and fascinated them.

ANOTHER WORLD

John Reed, Harbor Branch's chief scientist aboard the 204-research vessel, described coral thickets as tall as a man, pinnacles of limestone jutting 100 feet from the ocean floor, slopes 350 feet high. Much of the habitats undulate with life -- coral, sponges, crustaceans and fish, large and small.

They've made some intriguing initial observations. Much of the coral lives on the north side of ridges, possibly fed nutrients by cold currents that run counter to the Gulf Stream above. And even this isolated world hasn't escaped human impacts -- the search beams have shown trash, including plastic bags.

But much of the work has simply been trying to document and catalog all that is there, grabbing samples and running experiments in the cramped shipboard lab.

The blobs of sponges and coral in the buckets will be sliced, frozen and run though chemical assays in the hopes of isolating medically beneficial compounds.

Harbor Branch researchers have hunted for cures at sea since the 1980s and have helped discover a number of chemicals now in the lengthy process of pharmaceutical development. One compound isolated from a Bahamian sponge, Pomponi said, has shown promise in cancer treatment but is in testing.

Sponges, gorgonians and mosses are a prime target for researchers.

The goal, said Reed, is to find ``something that kills cancer cells and doesn't kill anything else.''

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gwen_o_lyn
07-22-2006, 09:39 PM
Very nice article and great pics!

CarmieJo
07-23-2006, 08:24 PM
Interesting article, thanks.

fat walrus
07-24-2006, 01:21 AM
good reading, thanks for sharing.

JayBeDriften
07-24-2006, 03:17 AM
It's amazing how life always seems to find a way to go on. Great article.