<-- Back
Next -->

Research Ship to Deliver Deep-sea Corals to Biologist

Published on: 9/30/01
By: LYNNE LANGLEY Of The Post and Courier Staff
Page: B 1

Subheadline: Species collected in dive a mile beneath surface


ALAN HAWES/STAFF College of Charleston biologist Scott France holds specimens collected from 1,950 meters below the surface of the Eastern Pacific Ocean near Central America.

Paragoria coral (orange) and a brittle star (white) are two of the deep-ocean specimens biologist Scott France is studying.

When the Voyage of Discovery research ship ties up in Charleston today, Scott C. France will rush down to collect the corals he gathered a mile beneath the sea surface.
The little-known creatures have been in cold storage aboard the ship, but France will move them to his College of Charleston laboratory for painstaking DNA comparison that will take years.
If that sounds dry, France's mid-September cruise aboard the Atlantis and deep-sea dives on the Alvin provided plenty of excitement, he said.
The Alvin, which can plunge deeper than 1.3 miles, took him into a world that's new to science. "We fully expect to find new species. It's incredible," he said.

"There's a lot of stuff we don't know about the deep sea. Some people say there are up to one million species there."

He describes that world as mysterious. "Imagine being a biologist studying something you never see."
France in fact studies deep-sea corals that he's only glimpsed during about a dozen deep dives aboard the Alvin and a University of Hawaii submersible.

Although corals are often thought of as tropical reef residents, these slow-growing corals live for hundreds of years and form colonies that look like plants in pitch blackness and water barely above freezing.
France's voyage explored Georges Bank Canyons off New England, about a mile deep, and extinct volcanoes that form underwater islands called sea mounts.

France will study whether the coral in the canyons and at separate mounts are genetically different from one another, a clue as to how or whether coral colonies damaged by fishing gear might replenish one another.
About a mile down in a canyon, at 1,350 meters, France looked through portholes less than 6 inches wide and saw only mud. As the submersible rose about 200 meters, he spotted the rock of a canyon wall and one species of coral.

"I'd never seen such abundant coral at that depth. It was flat, fan-like, yellow coral a foot tall. In the center of each was a red-brown brittle star. ...

"It's a tough environment to live in," he said, explaining that the animals ate whatever currents brought their way.
Three scientists shared the 8-foot titanium sphere of the Alvin for about eight hours without benefit of chairs or heating. Surrounded by 2-degree water, France's breath condensed and dripped like rain.

"It's so exciting to see your environment that you gladly put up with it," France said.

During his earlier dives he felt the cold, but this time the Alvin carried so many new computers that their activity generated heat. France wore shorts.

With the Alvin's claw-like arms, France could take coral samples and place them in a collecting box filled with their deep-sea water. A slurp gun vacuumed the surface of other corals to reveal tiny forms of life. Videos recorded large creatures.

Fish tend to live among the fan and tree-shaped coral structures, and fishermen know to fish there, France said.
In some places like Georges Bank, the slow-growing corals have been destroyed by fishing gear, he said.
"Where will new replacement corals come from?" His genetic studies will provide answers, he hopes.

France will search for genetic differences in corals from various sites to determine which have common ancestors.
Attached as adults, corals travel as tiny larvae. Scientists have never figured out a way to study and track larvae moving in a vast sea until now, with DNA studies.

Genetic differences will show which apparently isolated coral colonies are the same and which are different, which could be sending their offspring to another home.

The Voyage of Discovery brought two surprises beyond the scientific ones, France said.

Hurricane Erin whipped swells of 20 feet around the ship and canceled some dives.

On Sept. 11 came confusing news via satellite of crashes at the World Trade Center buildings and the Pentagon. With spotty news and poor communication far out to sea, the ship finally got word not to pull in at New York, where the cruise was supposed to end.

Instead, the ship returned to Woods Hole, Mass., on Sept. 15, and that's when France learned the details of the terrorists' attacks.


The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has launched a new era of ocean exploration. The Deep East Voyage of Discovery is exploring the waters and sea floor off the eastern seaboard. The other key mission this year, called Islands in the Stream, is to learn more about environmentally significant areas and National Marine Sanctuaries.

The Atlantis from Deep East and the Seward Johnson II from Islands will dock in Charleston today.

S.C. Natural Resources Department biologist George Sedberry returns today from an Islands in the Stream expedition to the Charleston Bump and the Savannah Scarp.

Sedberry served as lead scientist on both missions.

College of Charleston and University of South Carolina biologists are aboard the Atlantis.

NOAA had announced open houses here aboard both ships, but the Sept. 11 attack canceled those plans. A ceremony and student tours of the ships are by invitation only.