09/21/2010 22:28

Reefs discovered by Haifa University researchers using robot diving equipment only 30 km. from Tel Aviv.

Coral reefs have been discovered deep off Israel’s Mediterranean coast by a team of Haifa University researchers who spent the last two-and-a-half weeks on the Nautilus ship owned by Robert Ballard, the discoverer in 1985 of shipwrecked ocean liner Titanic.

The Nautilus carried robot diving equipment that reached as far as two kilometers under the surface.

The first-of-a-kind voyage to study the Mediterranean Sea floor off the coast ventured out beyond the Israel’s territorial waters to areas where Israel still has rights. The scientists were from the university’s Leon Charney School of Marine Sciences.

The captain of the Mediterranean mission was Israel Prize winner and director of the Charney School, Prof. Zvi Ben-Avraham.

“It was like finding Ein Gedi in the middle of the desert,” Dr. Yitzhak Makovsky, who headed the project’s control center, said this week.

“We never expected to find coral reefs of such proportions there. We didn’t expect it or even dream of it,” he added.

The most significant findings were corals covering several kilometers, 700 meters below the surface and 30 to 40 kilometers off the coast of Tel Aviv.

The undersea area was always thought to be lacking in living creatures, especially corals, said Makovsky.

The findings are also important because coral colonies develop very slowly. Thus specimens brought back to be studied in the University of Haifa’s labs could serve as a “tape recorder” of biological changes on the seabed in the area over the last several hundred years, he said.

The area must urgently be declared a “natural undersea preserve” to protect it, as is done for coral reefs around the world, Makovsky declared. As the survey took only about 18 days and was preliminary, it should be followed by longer and more intensive investigations of the seabed, he continued.

The Nautilus crew also discovered two shipwrecks, apparently modern fishing boats several dozens of years old, that lie on the seabed. Fish and lobsters found living in and on them were photographed hundreds of meters under the surface of the water in their natural surroundings.

One of the fish found there was the chimera monstrosa, a species that separated from the shark family some 400 million years ago. The team also discovered a small lobster, about 10 centimeters long, that was hiding in a crevice in a rock and thus was difficult to identify, but it was photographed for the first time at such depths and will be studied, thanks to the Nautilus robots.