Scotland's dazzling hidden coral reefs uncovered
BRILLIANT pinks, purples, yellows and reds shine out from the dark. Shoals of brightly coloured fish dart in and out of reefs rich with sea anemones. sea urchins and sponges.
Coral reefs and the abundant life they support are usually associated with the fertile, shallow and warm waters of the southern hemisphere.
But these pictures were taken around a mile down in the deep Rockall Trough in the Atlantic Ocean west of Scotland by a team of marine scientists using specialist camera equipment.
The team, from the government's Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), the Edinburgh-based British Geological Survey and the University of Plymouth, were the first to map and photograph five previously undiscovered coral reefs at depths of up to 1,500 metres.
They found dense thickets of metre-high sea fan corals of different hues that had probably taken centuries to form.
As well as the delicate and ornate sea fans, the team also discovered reefs formed by hard corals, similar to those that built Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
In addition to the abundant corals, a wide range of animals, including sea urchins, basket stars, orange feather stars, yellow sponges and fish were seen living on the reefs. They were in pristine condition as they were sited on steep rocky outcrops away from traditional fishing areas.
The team will now submit its findings to UK ministers so the reefs can be considered for special protection under European law.
The month-long expedition to the Rockall Trough first visited the flanks of the Anton Dohrn Seamount, an extinct underwater volcano rising more than 2,100m from the seabed, reaching its summit at a depth of 600m. The research vessel commissioned by JNCC then headed further out to the steep, submerged cliffs and pinnacles of the East Rockall Bank, near the tiny uninhabited British islet of Rockall, almost 200 miles west of the Outer Hebrides.
The reefs were filmed using high-tech camera equipment lowered on a cable a distance greater than the height of Ben Nevis, with the researchers manning video screens aboard the survey vessel around the clock.
Neil Golding, the JNCC's offshore survey programme manager, said: "At the beginning when we were planning the survey, we really hoped that we would find evidence of these habitats and I'm delighted that we discovered such pristine examples.
"We have filmed down to 1,000m before but this was a lot deeper. Cameras have never been down on the flanks of Anton Dohrn before and there were some pretty severe slopes.
"We were really surprised by what we found, because you don't really expect coral reefs at 1,500m. You hope to find habitats like that but most of the time you never do.
"It was really exciting and we were on the edge of our seats most of time at what we were seeing."
The reefs were found on bare rocky outcrops on the sides of the seamount and the slopes of East Rockall Bank where the coral has been undisturbed to feed on plankton and other nutrients in the ocean currents.
Dr Kerry Howell, of Plymouth University's Marine Institute, said: "It is wonderful to drop a camera down and see this. We were working deeper than we have ever worked before and saw some things we hadn't seen previously. We have seen individual sea fans before but never in these thickets.
"To find what we did in such pristine condition was amazing. Other reefs we have filmed have been damaged. But these really were untouched and full of life, which is probably due to the depth and a terrain that is no good for fishing."
Howell said the big sea fans were likely to be hundreds of years old. "To get to that size they must be very old as they are very slow growing."
Mission chief scientist Ken Hitchen, from the British Geological Survey, said "spectacular" coral reefs had been found. "What we were looking for was pristine reefs that can be preserved. In shallower areas the reefs have been smashed by trawling and we want to protect all these beautiful areas that we found out there."
The team completed the survey despite having to return to Stornoway twice to repair camera malfunctions and having to run for cover to St Kilda in advance of a violent Atlantic storm heading in their direction.
Scientific analysis of thousands of images and video film will now be undertaken over the next six months before evidence of the quality of the reefs is submitted to the government.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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