for National Geographic News
Aboard a research ship trolling the waters off Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, Mexican marine biologist Claudia Padilla trained last spring to earn her "wings"or, perhaps more apt, her "fins"as the pilot of a deep-sea submersible vessel.
The one-person craft, called DeepWorker 2000, is capable of exploring life in the ocean at depths of up to 2,000 feet (600 meters). It gives Padilla unprecedented access to the ancient paleo-shoreline just beyond the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula.
Beginning 165 feet (50 meters) below the surface and plunging to 350 feet (100 meters) and beyond, an area that was once a surf-pounded cliff is now home to a rich variety of fish, sponges, algae, and soft corals. One of the most imperiled of these creatures is the object of Padilla's research: black coral.
Highly sought for its use in jewelry and handicrafts, black coral (order Antipatharia) is under threat around the world. In Mexico, fortune seekers take extraordinary risks scuba-diving as deep as 250 feet (75 meters) to gather "trees" of black coral.
Their efforts have severely depleted the coral on the coast of Isla Cozumel, where most of Yucatán's black-coral hunters live. As a result, the divers have pushed southward in search of black coral habitats that have not yet been plundered.
One of the primary goals of Padilla's work is to determine how far down in the sea black coral is able to grow.
"The coral collectors have always maintained that dense colonies of black coral remain, in waters deeper than the collectors are able to work," Padilla said. They use that assumption to justify their harvesting of the coral in areas where it is accessible, arguing that deeper, undisturbed colonies can help repopulate shallower areas that have been stripped by collectors.
"But if such deeper colonies do not exist," Padilla added, "the effects of the industry may be greater than previously believed."
Better Deep-sea Access
Padilla and her research colleagues are focusing on the most recent areas of black coral encroachment, at the sparsely populated southern tip of Yucatán, between the remote towns of Majahual and Xcalak.
Their research vessel, the McArthur, is owned by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is a partner with the National Geographic Society in a five-year project called Sustainable Seas Expeditions.
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