Coral Reef NOAA
 
October 22, 2014  

USVI & Puerto Rico Mesophotic Coral Ecosystems Mission


colorful image of brown coral, blue sea squirts, green algae, and red, orange, and brown sponges on a mesophotic reef  located off the coast of Puerto Rico
Some corals in the mesophotic zone grow in plate‐like form to maximize light capture. In this image corals are found thriving at 50 meters (164 feet) among bright blue ascidians (known as sea squirts), light green algae (Lobophora), and red, orange, and brown sponges. Photo credit: H. Ruiz

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Investigating mesophotic coral ecosystems in the waters surrounding the Caribbean islands of Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands (USVI) is the purpose of an upcoming NOAA-supported research mission. Mesophotic coral ecosystems—'meso'’ for middle and 'photic' for light—are the deepest of the light-dependent coral reefs and are found at depths of 50-100 m (100-330 feet) in the US Caribbean. It has been hypothesized that mesophotic coral ecosystems may serve as potential sources to reseed or replenish degraded shallow-water coral reef species.

Mesophotic coral ecosystems are largely unexplored mainly due to the depth limitations of conventional SCUBA diving. Advances in technical diving methods and instrumentation, such as mixed gas diving, autonomous underwater vehicles and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), are providing easier access to study these ecosystems. These ecosystems are the focus of the upcoming research cruise being conducted by a team of scientists and students from the University of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean Coral Reef Institute, in collaboration with the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. In fact, this research team recently found extensive and biologically diverse mesophotic reefs off the southwestern coast of Puerto Rico. For more information on the recent work in Puerto Rico, see the NOAA Press Release.

Resources for this Mission

Daily Mission logs including photos

The upcoming mission will investigate mesophotic coral ecosystems found in the Mona Passage, off eastern Puerto Rico, and off the USVI islands of St. Thomas and St. Croix from April 15-May 5, 2011 aboard the M/V Spree. Researchers will utilize techniques such as photo transects, visual fish censuses, and ROV observations. To test for connectivity to other reefs in the region, researchers will collect corals for DNA analyses. They will also collect specimens for identification, as these largely unexplored ecosystems often yield new species.

This work is funded by NOAA’s Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research (CSCOR). For more information on mesophotic coral ecosystems research, visit CSCOR’s webpage on the Deep-Coral Reef Ecosystems Studies Program.