FORT PIERCE, FLORIDA (December 12, 2008) -The Waitt Institute for Discovery's CATALYST ONE expedition team sailed home aboard the R/V Seward Johnson on Wednesday energized by the discovery of three never-before identified Lophelia coral reefs. The science team, led by John Reed of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (HBOI) at Florida Atlantic University, spent six days at sea utilizing Waitt's two 6000-meter autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) to remotely map the ocean floor in a region under consideration for status as a Marine Protected Area. The brand new CATALYST AUVs, nicknamed Ginger and Mary Ann, were operated by a go-to team of versatile engineers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, as part of the CATALYST Program partnership.
The three newly discovered Lophelia coral reefs range in size from 40-60 meters (150-200 feet) tall and sit in water about 400m (1300 feet) deep. Individual Lophelia can grow to several meters in diameter and one to three meters high. Based on radiocarbon dating, live Lophelia coral off the coast of Florida is estimated to be 700 years old and is home to thousands of species of fish and invertebrates.
"The mapping of Lophelia reefs in the Florida Straits is paramount to their survival," said Harbor Branch's John Reed. "Bottom trawl fishing equipment can turn a flourishing healthy reef into a pile of lifeless rubble in a matter of hours and the reefs cannot be protected until they are discovered and documented." Reed has studied these fragile ecosystems off Florida's coast for more than 30 years and will use the mapping data from CATALYST ONE to support his policy efforts with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council to delineate the region as a Deep Coral Habitat Area of Particular Concern (HAPC). The CATALYST ONE results will also assist Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in determining exact locations to revisit and explore in person with their Johnson Sea Link submersibles on future HBOI expeditions.
"Every discovery made with our CATALYST AUVs is really just a beginning," said Dominique Rissolo, Executive Director of the Waitt Institute for Discovery. "We see each of our CATALYST expeditions as a springboard, enabling and inspiring future discoveries, targeted scientific investigations, and priority conservation efforts."
The CATALYST Program's cutting-edge AUV technology enables the scientific community for the first time to survey large areas of ocean floor with advanced accuracy and efficiency. The program's Hydroid REMUS 6000 vehicles were developed and engineered by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and were commissioned by the Waitt Institute for Discovery under the direction of President and Founder, Ted Waitt. Carrying multiple instruments and sensors, including side-scan sonar and a photographic camera, the Waitt AUVs map the ocean floor by tracking back and forth over the bottom along a pre-programmed track. At the end of each sortie, which can last up to 18 hours, the AUV is recovered aboard the R/V Seward Johnson and data are downloaded, processed and analyzed to produce a mosaic of pictures revealing the sea floor, forming the most detailed pictures of the ocean bottom that existing technologies can produce.