Deep coral reefs discovered off Britain

The deepest coral reefs off the coast of Britain have been explored for the first time revealing ancient coral, colourful fish, deepwater sharks and even species that were previously unknown to science.

The five cold-water coral reefs were found by scientists monitoring an underwater mountain range 200 miles off the coast of North West Scotland last month.

The reefs are more than a mile under the ocean in dark, cold waters but boast a wealth of marine life. By sending hi-tech cameras thousands of feet under the water scientists were able to study coral similar to those that built Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, star fish, sea urchins, sponges and strange deepwater fish.

The team of researchers now have 3,000 photographs and 50 hours of film taken by the cameras and think there could even be new species lurking in the depths.

Already, the reefs have been identified as a “biodiversity hotspot” and the Government is expected to apply to have the reefs protected under European law.

The study was commissioned by the Government’s adviser on wildlife protection, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. Scientists from the British Geological Survey and the University of Plymouth spent four weeks exploring one of the most remote and inaccessible areas of the North Atlantic Ocean.

They found four coral reefs around the Anton Dohrn Seamount, an extinct underwater volcano rising more than a mile from the seabed to its summit at a depth of 600m. There is also a coral reef off Rockall Bank.

The majority of the reefs were pristine, because of the depth and remote nature of the area. Some stretched as far as half a mile, however it is not known what scale the reefs cover at this stage of the research.

Hundreds of species were discovered including ancient hard corals similar to those found off Australia, sea fans more than three feet wide, strange fish like the round-nosed grenadier and colourful creatures like the yellow sponges and orange feather stars.

Neil Golding, Offshore Survey Manager for JNCC, said there are only a handful of other coral reefs around Britain and none as deep. He said there may even be species that were previously unknown to science in the newly-discovered reefs.

“It could be the most significant coral reef found in recent years because of the diversity of animals that we found. There are hundreds of species down there and possibly even more that we have never heard of before.”

The JNCC is expected to apply to make the reefs Special Areas of Conservation so they are protected from destructive fishing methods like deepwater trawling under European law.