Scientists from NUI Galway uncover new deepwater coral reefs

close up on coralsTuesday, 26 May 2009: Researchers from NUI Galway, during a recent deep-water expedition, have confirmed the existence of a major new coral reef province on the southern end of the Porcupine Bank off the west coast of Ireland.

The province covers an area of some 200 and contains in the order of 40 coral reef covered carbonate mounds. These underwater hills rise as high as 100m above the seafloor. 

Image: Cold water coral reef. Pink and white varieties of the major framework-building coral species Lophelia pertusa. Large solitary corals (left of centre) Desmophyllum sp. and anemones.

Coral and track images copyright of NUI Galway. Courtesy: Dr Anthony Grehan, Earth and Ocean Sciences, NUI Galway. Contact: Dr Anthony Grehan. ( check project website: http;//

The deep-water research expedition took place earlier this month aboard the Marine Institute research vessel, the RV Celtic Explorer.   The research used the new national Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) Holland I to survey the seafloor and capture unique video footage.  The expedition, led by Dr Anthony Grehan, was a collaboration between NUI Galway and the Institut Français de Recherche pour l’Exploitation de la Mer (IFREMER) and involved researchers and students from both institutions.  

Dr Anthony Grehan, NUI Galway, said: “These are by far the most pristine, thriving and hence spectacular examples of cold-water coral reefs that I’ve encountered in almost ten years of study in Irish waters. There is also evidence of recent recruitment of corals and many other reef animals in the area suggesting this area is an important source of larvae supply to other areas further along the Porcupine Bank”.  

Map of the mission 

Dr Grehan suggested that given the rugged terrain, its unsuitability for trawling and its well defined boundaries, that the area would be an excellent additional candidate to the four existing off-shore coral Special Areas of Conservation (SAC).  He said that NUI Galway’s Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences would in due course provide a copy of all video footage to the National Parks and Wildlife Service to facilitate them in their work of further SAC designations to comply with the European Union's Habitat Directive.


The track of the mission aboard the RV Celtic Explorer

The expedition began in French waters with a series of ROV dives in previously unexplored canyons in the Bay of Biscay which confirmed the presence of coral and geogenic reefs that will be notified to the new French Marine Protected Area Agency.  Dr Brigitte Guillaumont from the newly established agency, said: “The video and images obtained from the high definition video camera of the Irish ROV are very impressive and will greatly assist us in our work of designating areas for the protection of corals”.

Moving into Irish waters, the use of high resolution bathymetry charts, provided by the Irish National Seabed Survey, a collaboration between the Geological Survey of Ireland and the Marine Institute, enabled the identification of new areas likely to support coral reefs. The ROV was then used to dive on one of these areas, the Archipelagos Mounds (or Arc Mounds), to reveal a seascape of spectacular coral reefs.  Anna Rensdorf, a Griffith Geoscience PhD student in the Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences, NUI Galway, who had previously worked on tropical corals, said: “I can’t believe that coral reefs like these can be found in the cold waters of Ireland.  On many of the mounds surveyed, living coral thickets stood up to 2m high where ordinarily they are less than half a metre in height”.   

ROV Holland 1

 The Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) Holland 1

The NUI Galway study is part of a larger pan-European project funded by the European Commission’s 7th research Framework Programme, called  ‘CoralFISH’ that is studying in detail the interactions between corals, fish and fisheries. Dr Grehan, coordinator of the European study, said: “At the recent International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) deep-sea symposium delegates expressed increasing concern about the level of bottom fishing related damage sustained by vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs) in the High Seas (i.e. areas beyond national jurisdiction). 

Because cold-water corals remain the best example of VMEs, much research is focused on them.  One of the key areas in the management of fisheries now appears to be improving our understanding of how fish use habitat. We need to understand what effect damage or removal of that habitat will have on fish stocks and communicating that knowledge to fishermen”.  

Fish and coral


A large Phycis sp. feeding on a smaller fish caught on the reef. The ROV arm is visible in the bottom right of the shot. Image copyright of NUI Galway.





Dr Grehan noted that vulnerable marine ecosystems such as coral reefs represent one of the last untapped reservoirs of potentially useful bio-compounds that might support the development of new anti-viral or anti-bacterial pharmaceuticals. The identification of such compounds is a major element of the Beaufort Marine Biodiscovery Award, of which NUIG are a partner, in association with University College, Cork (UCC) and Queen's University of Belfast (QUB).

For more information on the Celtic Explorer survey and the CoralFISH project please visit the project website:  

Access to the R/V Celtic Explorer was granted to NUI Galway through the National Marine Research Vessels Ship-Time Grant Aid Programme 2009, which is funded under the Marine Research Sub-Programme of National Development Plan 2007-2013.

The ROV "Holland 1" was co-funded under the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).     

For Further Information Please Contact:

Dr Anthony Grehan, Earth and Ocean Sciences, NUI Galway, Ireland

Email: Tel: +353 91 493235  

Michelle Ní Chróinín, Press & Information Officer NUI Galway

Email: Tel: +353 91 493542  

Dr. Brigitte Guillemont, IFREMER

Email:     Tel: +33 (0)2 98 22 43 17