Irish marine scientists have discovered a new coldwater coral habitat some 300km off the Kerry coastline.
A submerged vertical cliff some 800 metres below the sea surface is carpeted in coldwater coral, according to University College Cork (UCC) scientist Prof Andy Wheeler, who has just returned from a survey on the Marine Institute's research vessel MV Celtic Explorer.
The research team was mapping some previously unconfirmed reefs on the edge of the Porcupine Bank canyon, using the Holland I remotely operated vehicle (ROV), when it decided to move the ROV further in.
The Holland I ROV was “flown from 2,100 metres water depth in the middle of the canyon, up the canyon wall to the coral reefs clustered around the canyon top at 700 metres water depth”, Prof Wheeler said.
Although initial images were of organic-rich particles flushing down the canyon - resembling a “snow blizzard” - it then revealed a vertical cliff face habitat, rich in coral and other marine life, including sponges, crabs and fish.
“The Porcupine Bank has 500km of cliff habitat at this water depth. Corals were found between 900 and 700 metres water depth,” Prof Wheeler said.
This could double the amount of coral habitat already believed to be in the area, which is a designated special area of conservation.
The team also snagged fishing gear and litter during the research.
University of Ulster scientist Dr Chris McGonigle noted that the quality of data which the State’s research vessel and its ROV can collect is “phenomenal”.
He added: “We were seeing details on the seabed that a few years ago we could only have dreamed of.”