ELLSWORTH, Maine — Long known as a place rich in seafood, the Gulf of Maine also is home to “spectacular” formations of deep sea corals, scientists have discovered.

Researchers using a remotely controlled submersible vehicle this summer found “dense hanging gardens” of coral in the Schoodic Ridges region of the gulf, southeast of Mount Desert Island. The formations covered vertical walls about 25 to 40 feet high that were found about 200 feet below the water’s surface, Northeast Fisheries Science Center officials indicated in a prepared statement released last week.

“Few people realize that the Gulf of Maine is home to many beautiful deep-sea corals, about which we know so little,” Dave Packer, a marine ecologist at the federal fisheries science center’s Howard Laboratory at Sandy Hook, New Jersey, said in the release. Packer was co-chief scientist on a 15-day scientific cruise in July and August of the gulf that included researchers from the University of Maine and the University of Connecticut.

“Off the Northeast U.S., the very deep submarine canyons and seamounts far out along the edge of the continental shelf exhibit a high biodiversity of deep-sea corals, some of which may be hundreds if not thousands of years old,” Packer said. “Seeing high densities of several of these species in relatively shallow waters close to shore is amazing. The hanging gardens were spectacular!”

The discovery at Schoodic Ridges was made as part of a planned three-year federal research project off the Northeast coast. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been documenting the presence of corals in U.S. waters as part of its Deep Sea Coral Research and Technology Program.

Specifically, the formations found along the Schoodic Ridges that made such an impression on project scientists are of Primnoa coral, a type of sea fan commonly found in northern oceans. Paramuricea corals, sponges, fishes and other marine life also were captured on video and digital still cameras on the submersible, called Kraken 2, during 21 dives that lasted a total of 119 hours. During the dives, scientists operating Kraken 2 collected 134 samples of corals and other associated marine life for analyses.

Rhian Waller, an associate research professor at UMaine’s School of Marine Sciences, said Wednesday that scientists used a camera towed behind their vessel to conduct overview surveys in the gulf in 2013. This summer, researchers returned with the unmanned submarine to take a closer look at parts of Schoodic Ridges, Jordan Basin, northern Stellwagen Bank and western Wilkinson Basin.

Coral are small organisms classified as animals, rather than as plants, that secrete hard exoskeletons and grow in colonies, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They often are found in shallow, tropical waters, but deep-water varieties are known to be found along the entire East Coast, in the Gulf of Mexico, the West Coast and the entire Alaskan coast.

Waller said reports of coral being found by fishermen in the Gulf of Maine date back to the 1800s. A 2002 marine research expedition revealed coral in Jordan Basin. Nonetheless, she said, project scientists were surprised by what they found this summer at the Schoodic Ridges.

“It was a great find for us,” Waller said. “We did not expect to find such large colonies.”

Waller said documenting the extent and location of coral in the Gulf of Maine and elsewhere is scientifically important because coral often serves as habitat for other marine species that are environmentally and economically significant. The coral along the Schoodic Ridges, which depend on the area’s strong currents to provide nutrients and to wash away waste, attract commercially important fish species such as pollock and herring, which in turn attract larger fish and even whales.

The UMaine scientist said researchers used multibeam sound readings from Kraken 2 to map about 40 square nautical miles of western Jordan Basin and about 30 square nautical miles of Outer Schoodic Ridge. With the submersible’s video capabilities, they directly observed only a few nautical miles of bottom at each site, she added.

Waller said project scientists are hoping to receive more funding that will allow them to bring the unmanned submarine back to the Gulf of Maine for more exploration in 2015.

“The mapping is important because it allows us to look at other similar topography and make pretty accurate predictions about whether there will be corals there,” Waller said, adding that there could be additional “prolific” coral formations elsewhere in Jordan Basin and the Schoodic Ridges. “Having those predictions allows us to fine tune our exploration and know much more about a wider area than we ever could [determine] with direct observation.”

Peter Auster of the University of Connecticut, the project’s other scientific leader, said that getting better data about the underwater environment in the gulf is key to determining what kind of activities should take place in it.

“That we found these spectacular walls of corals for the first time in 2014, after 40 plus years of research with submersible vehicles in the Gulf of Maine, illustrates how much more we need to understand about the gulf ecosystem in order to better conserve and manage our natural resources,” Auster said in the prepared statement about the find.

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....