“A scientist has accidentally discovered Britain’s very own Great Barrier Reef , while looking for seaweed off the south coast.
The rare habitat, which is the size of 50 football pitches, has lain undiscovered for thousands of years, and its vast colourful construction has been hailed as a discovery of major importance because of its bearing on local marine wildlife.
Situated 25m below the surface the reef provides a vast feeding ground for hundreds of species of fish, crab and sea snails, and the discovery has led experts to believe there maybe many more similar reefs off the British coast which have also yet to be found.
Unlike the natural Australian coral version, the reef off the Isle of Purbeck, Dorset has been built over hundreds of years by a peculiar and mysterious worm – the Ross Worm, which lives in huge groups and builds protective hollows out of sea shells and mud that together form large-scale underwater reefs. It is believed it would take many years and hundreds of thousands of Ross Worms, which are about a foot in length and one inch wide, to create a reef this size.
Dr Ken Collins, of the Southampton Oceanography Centre, has spent the last 30 years studying the south coast and was stunned when he stumbled upon the reef. “It’s quite amazing, rich and interesting – there’s a lot down there and we’ve only just discovered it,” he said.
“”I came across the reef while I was researching the distribution pattern of a rare, pink seaweed called Maerl. “Divers reported to me where the Mearl was found so I could map it, but when they reached the edge of the seaweed’s habitat they stumbled across the reef.”
Divers on the reef can only see a few feet in front of them because it is so dark, but the reef’s size is estimated to be around a square mile.
“”I know of nothing on this scale in Britain,” he said. There is a reef in the Bristol Channel which we know about because trawlers have pulled big chunks of it up, but there is not much fishing done near this reef in Dorset.
“Its real importance is for the species that make use of it,” said Collins. “There are hundreds of types of crab that live there including hermit crabs. It is also home to star fish, anemones, sea snails and numerous fish that are attracted by the abundance of food. Coral does not live there but this reef is as important to British marine life as coral reefs are to tropical marine life.”
While many tropical reefs have been well documented, Dr Collins believes the British coast has many more secrets to give up.
“I’m sure there are other reefs – perhaps not on this scale – that have been in existence off the British coast for thousands of years, but which we don’t know about.”
The worms cocoon themselves in hollow tubes that stack up to around a metre off the seabed. The worms live in the tubes with just their feeding tentacles protruding, which they withdraw when they sense danger. Their tubes build up over the years and create an excellent habitat for other marine life.
Victoria Copley, of English Nature, which helped fund Dr Collins’ seaweed project, said, “The reef is a very colourful place with a lot of coraline algae which comes in different shades of pink and there are sponges that are yellow, orange and black. There are many fish that feed on the reef, including gobies, wrasse, pouting, pollock and cuttlefish. As far as we can tell this reef is healthy and vibrant and we now just want to raise awareness – most people don’t realise that Britain has reefs.”
English Nature, the Environment Agency and the Dorset-based Durlston Marine Project have now joined forces to help research the reef.
Fisrt seen on Reuters