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Expedition Uncovers Three Never-before Identified Coral Reefs Off Florida's Coast

An inaugural expedition using state-of-the-art autonomous underwater vehicles to survey, map and identify large areas of the ocean bottom has uncovered three never-before identified Lophelia coral reefs. The seven day mission has revealed extraordinary data about the relatively unknown deep water reefs just off Florida's coast.
The team efforts of scientists and crew from the Waitt Institute for Discovery, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute have paid off with the recent discovery of three never-before identified Lophelia coral reefs which were located 35 miles off the coast of Florida and 450 meters deep.

The CATALYST ONE expedition which kicked-off on December 4 combined the scientific expertise of Harbor Branch’s senior research professor, John Reed, with Waitt Institute’s cutting edge autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and Woods Hole’s high-tech operations skills. The discovery of the first two deep coral reefs occurred during the first dive of the expedition on December 5. The third Lophelia coral reef was discovered by the AUVs on December 7 after the re-positioning of Harbor Branch’s research vessel Seward Johnson to the expedition’s third survey site.

“Lophelia corals are found in the deeper ranges of the Straits of Florida, but it is still not clear how extensive these reefs are,” said Reed.

Vulnerable to bottom trawling fishing equipment that can turn a healthy reef into lifeless rubble, the CATALYST ONE expedition accomplished its objective to survey, map and identify areas that contain deep coral reefs. With this newly acquired information, Reed will submit these findings to the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council to provide further data for their proposed Deep Coral Habitat Area of Particular Concern (HAPC) to protect these fragile reefs. Reed has studied the deep coral reefs off Florida’s coast for more than 30 years, and he is largely responsible for gathering supporting data to make the case for the marine protected areas that now exist to protect the shallower Oculina coral reefs that are found 15 to 20 miles off Florida’s east coast.

The state-of-the-art REMUS 6000 AUV vehicles, developed by Woods Hole and operated in partnership with the Waitt Institute, provided the essential tools necessary to survey large areas of the ocean bottom in order to locate these reefs. The REMUS vehicles are capable of carrying two kinds of sonar and a camera to map the ocean floor by tracking back and forth over the bottom. Following along a pre-programmed track, these vehicles move in a manner similar to mowing a lawn. At the end of a mission, which can last up to 18 hours, the vehicles are recovered on the RV Seward Johnson and all data are downloaded, processed and analyzed to produce a mosaic of pictures of the bottom. When pieced together, the mosaics form the most detailed, high-definition pictures of the ocean bottom that exist today.

"This brief, seven day mission revealed spectacular data about the relatively unknown deep water reefs just off our coast,” said Reed. “It was exciting to see these two new AUV vehicles work under some very difficult conditions, and there is no doubt that the combined efforts of the Waitt Institute, the AUV crew from Woods Hole, the sonar team, and our ship and crew from Harbor Branch made this expedition a success."

At times during the expedition, scientists and crew experienced 30 knot winds, eight foot seas and two knot currents on the ocean bottom but were still able to follow their planned tracks flawlessly over the these rugged reefs.

“Rarely do scientific expeditions produce solid results this quickly,” said Dr. Shirley Pomponi, executive director of Harbor Branch. “This is a big win for the resource managers tasked with protecting these reefs and proof that cutting edge technology combined with the seamless teamwork of the three organizations involved in CATALYST ONE can accelerate the pace of discovery.”

For more information:

The Waitt Institute CATALYST Program

HBOI @Sea – CATALYST ONE Expedition Updates

WHOI Oceanographic Systems Lab

About the Waitt Institute:
The Waitt Institute for Discovery is a non-profit research organization that serves as an exploration catalyst, enabling scientific pioneers to transform the ways in which discoveries are made. The Waitt Institute for Discovery implements innovative technologies in the field through collaborations with world-renowned scientific institutions, synthesizing global expertise and accelerating groundbreaking research. Founded in 2005 by Ted Waitt , The Waitt Institute for Discovery seeks to advance human understanding of the past and secure promise of a better future through exploration and discovery. For more information about The Waitt Institute for Discovery, please visit:

About Harbor Branch:
Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University is a research institute dedicated to exploration, innovation, conservation and education related to the oceans. Harbor Branch was founded in 1971 as a private non-profit organization, In December 2007, Harbor Branch joined Florida Atlantic University.

About FAU:
Florida Atlantic University opened its doors in 1964 as the fifth public university in Florida. Today, the University serves more than 26,000 undergraduate and graduate students on seven campuses strategically located along 150 miles of Florida's southeastern coastline. Building on its rich tradition as a teaching university, with a world-class faculty, FAU hosts ten colleges: College of Architecture, Urban & Public Affairs, Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts & Letters, the Charles E. Schmidt College of Biomedical Science, the Barry Kaye College of Business, the College of Education, the College of Engineering & Computer Science, the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College, the Graduate College, the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing and the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science.

About Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution:
The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a private, independent organization in Falmouth, Mass., dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930 on a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, its primary mission is to understand the oceans and their interaction with the earth as a whole, and to communicate a basic understanding of the oceans’ role in the changing global environment. For more information, please visit:

Gisele Galoustian | Newswise Science News
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