After the recent snowstorm, I was daydreaming about tropical places – places with warm, crystalline water and beautiful coral reefs. This is where most people think of corals living, but we actually have coral right here in the Gulf of Maine. They’re not in the shallow water along the coast, but instead are in deeper water. That’s likely why most people don’t know they are here.

The corals we have in the Gulf of Maine are a bit different, however, than the ones in the Caribbean. Because they are in deeper water that means that they don’t get much sunlight. That would be a problem for tropical corals that have photosynthetic algae that live in them and provide nutrition for the coral animals. To back up a bit, coral may look like a plant, but it is very much an animal – or more likely thousands of tiny animals living together. A reef might not look much like a jellyfish, but if you look up close at a single coral animal, or polyp, you can see a similar simple body surrounded by tentacles. Some corals, like fire coral, even sting.

Coral reefs have been in the news lately because of the increase of bleaching events. This is what happens when the photosynthetic algae that live inside the coral polyps die or leave the corals. Then, the corals don’t have the nutrients they need and can also die, leaving behind a white skeleton. The algae need just the right conditions to thrive and when water temperatures are too warm or the radiation from the sun is too strong, they can’t tolerate it. This is a problem not just for the corals, but also for all of the animals that they provide habitat for. When that habitat is gone, the reef ecosystem is threatened.

Some neat research has uncovered new methods of regenerating reefs in areas that have been bleached. Essentially this is coral IVF. Coral reproduce by releasing sperm and eggs into the water. Some of those meet and make baby coral larvae that settle and grow into polyps. To enhance their chances of survival, scientists have been gathering the sperm and eggs and fertilizing them in the lab before “planting” them back on the reef. So far so good – the first successful coral fertility treatment.

Because the corals we have in the Gulf of Maine are in deep water, they aren’t subject to the same bleaching events that tropical corals are. But, they still do provide important habitat for many fish and other marine species. And, they’re really quite beautiful. Divers refer to them as coral gardens as they don’t grow in rocky formations like tropical corals, but rather in tree and fan shapes. These formations can be up to 40 feet high. But, they weren’t discovered here until 2013 when researchers took an underwater research vessel down into the deep. These corals can live hundreds of feet below the water. There’s some amazing video at NOAA’s Ocean Explorer site.

While they don’t face bleaching, deep-sea corals do face their own challenges. They grow very slowly – only a few millimeters each year. That means that any physical damage from things like fishing gear, undersea cables, or impacts from oil and gas exploration can mean many years of recovery. The changes in water chemistry due to climate change like increasing acidity and changes in salinity and temperature also hinder corals’ ability to build their skeletons. Not only are they important habitat for marine life, but scientists are also just beginning to study their potential benefits in the medical field.

Perhaps we don’t have to go to the tropics after all to enjoy corals. We can focus on the corals found here in the deep waters of Gulf of Maine, a mysterious place full of habitats we have just begun to explore, but that we already know support a rich variety of life.

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