An international team of scientists has discovered a new coldwater coral habitat in Irish waters.
The team, led by Professor Andy Wheeler of University College Cork, were on the Marine Institute’s RV Celtic Explorer during the QuERCi survey on Irish coldwater coral reefs.
While mapping and inspecting some previously unconfirmed reefs on the edge of the Porcupine Bank Canyon, 300 km offshore from Dingle, the scientists decided to venture further into the canyon itself.
The ROV was manoeuvred from 2100m water depth in the middle of the canyon, up the canyon wall to the coral reefs clustered around the top at 700m water depth. The bottom of the canyon was choked with organic-rich particles flushing down the canyon on the way to the abyssal plain, which was described as "like flying the ROV through a snow blizzard".
The cliff face, never seen by humans before, was covered in corals and other associated organisms. These near vertical habitats hardly feature on maps yet can be hundreds of metres high and extend for tens of km. The team found found many species of coral, sponges, crabs and fish.
"The Porcupine Bank has 500km of cliff habitat at this water depth. Corals were found between 900 and 700m water depth", explained Professor Wheeler. "It is not unfeasible that there is over 100km2 of coral habitat that was previously unaccounted for."
The discovery possibly doubles the amount of coldwater corals previously thought to exist in Irish waters.
The site has already been designated a Special Area of Conservation due to coral reefs in the vicinity. Despite its protection, the team found snagged fishing gear and litter. "It is a great shame, we are the first people to see this place yet despite of its remoteness there is still evidence of human impacts," said Professor Wheeler.
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