Students to explore coral reef through Internet

Published on April 15, 2003

Of The Post and Courier Staff

Anyone with a computer and Internet access can follow an exploration into a deep-water coral reef.

Scientists and students will explore and research the reefs of the Oculina Banks, which stretches 30 miles off Florida's coast, from Fort Pierce to Cape Canaveral, April 29 to May 8. Daily logs will be posted to a Web site and a live webcast will be transmitted from the ship, a NASA space shuttle support vessel normally used to retrieve spent solid rocket boosters. Area students, as well as those in North Carolina and Baltimore, will be corresponding with the crew via e-mail.

"We want to bring ocean science to the community," said Dewey Golub, technology specialist and webmaster with Project Oceanica, which is making the expedition accessible.

It's an arm of the College of Charleston's geology department, supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Coastal Services Center.

People usually learn only about ocean science after the fact and in a detached way, he said, by watching National Geographic television programs.

"We also want interested kids in the Southeast to know there's a future for them in marine sciences -- what those opportunities are and how they get connected with them," he said, adding that the careers section on the Web site has a lot of information.

The Oculina Banks includes the East Coast's first Marine Protected Area, a model for efforts to create new protected areas throughout the waters of the Southeastern United States and the Gulf of Mexico.

The research will help decide whether to extend the closure of the Oculina area beyond its current end date in 2004. The team will use a remote-controlled submersible robot to study the current health of the coral, which has been decimated in spots by commercial trawling.

They'll also test a system that could one day monitor fish behavior and detect illegal fishing activity on the reefs.

The crew will represent the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, NOAA Fisheries, College of Charleston and Florida State University.

In the last 1,000 years, the ivory tree coral, Oculina varicosa, has constructed a series of more than 100 pinnacles, mounds and ridges 150 to 300 feet beneath the Gulf Stream. The Oculina Banks can be as large as 100 feet high and 1,000 feet wide and attract sport and recreational fishers and shrimp trawlers.

Oculina's diversity of life is similar to that of shallow tropical coral reefs, which support dense and diverse populations of more than 70 fish species and are breeding grounds for commercially important populations of snappers, groupers, black sea bass, jacks, tuna, giant sunfish, manta rays and several shark species. Its location makes it a potentially important source of fish larvae for the entire Southeastern continental shelf.

Last year, another cruise produced the first high-resolution, three-dimensional color map of the banks, one at least 15 times more accurate than any previously produced. It will allow researchers to pinpoint the last remaining stands of live ivory tree coral.

For more information on the expedition, visit Schools that want to participate in the live webcast at 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. May 11, should e-mail Rachel McEvers by Friday at

Adam Ferrell can be contacted at 937-5521 or