Q: We often read that coral reefs are dying. Are the reefs that you find healthy and growing or are they being destroyed? How are the coral reefs off the Carolina coasts different from coral reefs in the tropics? Are they the same species of coral or very different in colder water?
A: The deep water reefs off the coasts of the Carolinas are generally healthy. The water quality is good out at sea. While there is evidence of fishing activity (trash and lost gear), as well as places where trawls have destroyed the structures, the deep water reefs are generally inaccessible.
North Carolina has some shallow water reefs, as well as deep water reefs. As you might expect, there are similarities and differences between the two types of reefs. What we think of as "the reef" is really deposited by the living coral polyps. Corals are very slow-growing organisms. The corals that live in shallow water have symbiotic zooxanthella living in the polyps. The deep water corals are in complete darkness and lack those organisms. The deep water corals off the Carolinas are ancient--at least hundreds of years old, and possibly tens of thousands of years in age. We plan to find a deep water coral called "Lophelia."
Cindy Lee Van Dover, a researcher and sub pilot on our boat, described the differences between deep water and shallow water corals in her book "The Octopus's Garden." On page 152 of this book, the author says, "The showy, luxuriant corals of the great tropical reefs are certainly precious, but to me they seem overdone, the floozies of the marine invertebrate world, rouged and primped beyond my interest. I prefer the more austere skeletons of the corals that live frugal, ancient lives in the deep sea."