Think of beautiful coral gardens and you’ll likely bring to mind the Great Barrier Reef or the azure waters surrounding the Maldives.
But scientists have come across a new collection of corals 5,000 feet under the eaves off the coast of Greenland.
Even more remarkably, the surprise find was made using a homemade low-cost deep sea video camera.
Researchers say the discovery, the first of its kind, could have important consequences for the country’s fishing industry, which accounts for more than 80 per cent of its exports.
Study first author doctoral student Stephen Long, of University College London (UCL), said: ‘The deep sea is often overlooked in terms of exploration.
‘In fact we have better maps of the surface of Mars, than we do of the deep sea.’
The deep sea is the biggest natural habitat on earth, covering nearly 65 per cent of the planet. But very little was known about Greenland’s deep seas until recently, because studying it is both difficult and expensive.
The main challenge is the ocean pressure, which increases by one atmosphere every ten metres of descent.
Previous expeditions have had to rely on expensive remote vehicles and manned submarines, like those used in the famous documentary series The Blue Planet.
To overcome this challenge, the research team designed its very own ‘low-cost towed video sled’ using a GoPro video camera and pressurised lights and lasers, all mounted on a robust steel frame.
Mr Long said: ‘The development of a low-cost tool that can withstand deep-sea environments opens up new possibilities for our understanding and management of marine ecosystems.
‘We’ll be working with the Greenland government and fishing industry to ensure this fragile, complex and beautiful habitat is protected.’
The team placed the Mini Cooper sized video sled on the seafloor for roughly 15 minutes at a time across 18 different locations. The DIY video camera was able to capture over 1,200 pictures, from which the team identified nearly 40,000 corals.
Mr Long said: ‘A towed video sled is not unique, however our research is certainly the first example of a low-cost DIY video sled being used to explore deep-sea habitats in Greenland’s 2.2 million kilometres squared of sea.
‘So far, the team has managed to reach an impressive depth of 1,500 metres. It has worked remarkably well and led to interest from researchers in other parts of the world.’
The soft coral garden, which lives in near total darkness, was discovered 500 metres below sea level and is home to feather stars, sponges, anemones, brittle stars, hydrozoans, bryozoans and other organisms.
Study last author Dr Chris Yesson, of the Zoological Society London, said: ‘Coral gardens are characterised by collections of one or more species – typically of non-reef forming coral, that sit on a wide range of hard and soft bottom habitats, from rock to sand, and support a diversity of fauna.
‘There is considerable diversity among coral garden communities, which have previously been observed in areas such as northwest and southeast Iceland.’
The team hopes the area, which extends over nearly 500 square kilometres will be protected as a ‘Vulnerable Marine Ecosystem’ under UN guidelines as it is right next to deep-sea trawl fisheries.
Deep-sea trawling for shrimp and prawns is vital to Greenland’s economy but can damage the environment by dragging heavy gear across the seabed.
Dr Martin Blicher from the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources said: ‘Greenland’s seafloor is virtually unexplored, although we know it is inhabited by more than 2000 different species together contributing to complex and diverse habitats, and to the functioning of the marine ecosystem.
‘Despite knowing so little about these seafloor habitats, the Greenlandic economy depends on a small number of fisheries which trawl the seabed. We hope that studies like this will increase our understanding of ecological relationships, and contribute to sustainable fisheries management.’
The findings were published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.
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