Deep sea exploration maps coral reefs

A biology professor participated in a submarine voyage to research at seafloor ecosystems.


While the world is focused on space exploration, Erik Cordes is focused on uncovering the unknown in the deep sea. 

The biology professor was one of the lead scientists on a recent mission by the ongoing DEEP Sea Exploration to Advance Research on Coral/Canyon/Cold seep Habitats program, or DEEP SEARCH. To build understanding of the ocean floor, the initiative samples and profiles ecosystems’ water columns, which are areas containing high levels of sea organisms.

Cordes and the rest of his team found a previously undiscovered coral reef about 160 miles off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina in August. They discovered the reef while surveying the Atlantic Ocean aboard their submarine, Alvin. 

“This is probably the biggest find that I’ve been a part of in my career,” Cordes said. “It’s just a massive area. It’s 85 miles of reef habitat and probably even more than that.”

Cordes’ voyage ended last month, but DEEP SEARCH will have other expeditions in the future

One of DEEP SEARCH’s founders, the United States Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, is responsible for leasing offshore regions for oil production and rigging. The goal of DEEP SEARCH is to make sure none of these areas will be exploited, Cordes said.. 

Alexis Weinnig, a doctoral biology student in Cordes’ on-campus lab, considers DEEP SEARCH a truly unique expedition. 

“DEEP SEARCH has this wide breadth of being able to look at multiple habitats that are very close to each other geographically, but also very different in their biology, geology, geochemistry,” Weinnig said. “It’s something that isn’t always the case.”

Ryan Gasbarro, a doctoral biology student and DEEP SEARCH research associate, was shocked by the size of the reef they explored during the voyage. 

“Everywhere we went, it was just coral growing on dead coral,” Gasbarro said. “Just these massive kind of reef structures. It was really unexpected.”

Cordes said the timing of the mission was critical. 

In January, President Donald Trump’s administration proposed lifting a moratorium on offshore drilling, the New York Times reported. While DEEP SEARCH is a strictly scientific expedition, oceanic research and development often change based on policies.

“Our job is not really to wade into politics too much,” Cordes said. “Our job is to get out there and ensure that the science is there for them to make the right decisions if they decide to open up.”

Cordes has also investigated the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon spill on the deep ocean. The 2010 oil spill by the Transocean oil company in the Gulf of Mexico is considered the largest marine oil spill ever. Cordes said he hopes DEEP SEARCH can help avoid similar mistakes in the Atlantic Ocean. 

“If drilling happens there, it needs to be managed in such a way that it is set back from these kinds of habitats,” he added. “If or when another accident happens, it shouldn’t happen right on top of a coral reef.”

Cordes added that offshore drilling may compromise the deep ocean’s vital mechanisms, like housing atmospheric carbon deposits, by destroying ecological habitats like the reef found on this expedition. 

“The more research we do, the more connections we find between the deep ocean and shallow waters,” he said. “As coral reefs disappear, the communities [they] support fall apart. Those kinds of effects are taking a while to be noticed.”

For Weinnig, oceans will need the public’s support to achieve widespread habitat preservation.

“As we have more mainstream exposure, there will be more of an understanding of how beautiful and amazing these ecosystems are,” she said. “Unfortunately, it’s just not something that reached the general public as a whole yet.”

Climate change, habitat destruction and overfishing accelerate the ocean’s deterioration, and Gasbarro agreed with Weinnig that these ecosystems are often undervalued. 

“The ocean is important for everything from our climate to fisheries to land,” Gasbarro said. “It’s just a matter of scientists communicating it well.” 

While DEEP SEARCH helped advance understanding of the Atlantic, Cordes is optimistic that interest in nautical research could expand with the public’s support.

“We’ve mapped five percent of our ocean at the resolution of the maps of the moon or Mars,” Cordes said. “We’ve seen with our eyes about a tenth of 1 percent. Shouldn’t we have a map of our own planet?”

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