Sunday, 22 April 2012

US Expedition Explores Mysterious Puerto Rican Reef

A 12-foot hammerhead shark, an undersea canyon that suddenly plunges 900 feet and an enormous orange-and-brown barrel sponge are only a few things in an unexplored Puerto Rican reef that U.S. scientists are using sonar and submersibles to explore.

"You could actually live in that thing it was so big," said Tim Battista, the expedition's chief scientist.

Perhaps more significant, however, is what they are not finding: brightly colored coral and many big fish, the absence of which signals a troubled ecosystem.

"We're not seeing those vibrant, rich coral communities that all of us love to see," Battista said.

In the three-week project that wraps up Saturday, Battista and other scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are mapping an area of 96 square miles (250 square kilometers). The results will help officials determine what sort of rules are needed to protect Puerto Rico's first officially designated marine corridor in the Northeast Great Reserve.

"There is very little information about what exists there now," Battista said. That is partly because the shelf is too deep for scuba diving.

While there are not as many native creatures as scientists had hoped to find, the reefs abound with an invading species, the lionfish. About 100 have been spotted per square acre, ecologist Chris Taylor said. The lionfish, which have no natural predators, have been gobbling up a variety of species and disrupting the balance of the reef ecosystems.

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