Over the past decade, Steve Ross has spent many of his days searching for undiscovered truths, kept hidden for years by deep, cold waters.
Those truths lie in massive, aged coral reefs, buried off the coasts of the Carolinas, Georgia and eastern Florida. The deepwater coral reefs, and the sea life in them, could hold cures to cancer and historical information on environmental changes over thousands of years, say scholars familiar with Ross' work.
Scientists have studied and documented the value of protecting coral ecosystems near the shore for years. But deep-sea coral has remained uncharted territory. Ross, a UNC Wilmington marine scientist, has led an effort to locate and study deep-sea coral ecosystems off the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. Next month, he will make his fourth trip out into the Atlantic Ocean to study what may be the largest contiguous distribution of deepwater corals in the world.
"One of our first tasks was to go down there and say 'what's here?'" said Ross, 57. So far, they have found more than 100 kinds of fish - which surprised a lot of people - including four new species, he said. "[The deep water] has basically been hiding all these species from anyone that was looking."
In 2003, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council tasked Ross and John Reed of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Florida to compile reports on the coral's ecosystem in the region that extends from the Carolinas to Key West. In some cases, Ross and Reed charted miles of massive coral living in waters from 1,400 feet to nearly 3,000 feet deep.
"Basically, the two of them have been the driving force behind the council's conservation and management efforts for deepwater corals," said Myra Brouwer, a fishery scientist with the council.
Research with results
Based on those reports, the council, one of eight regional fishery commissions in the United States, voted last month to restrict fishing on a 23,000-square-mile area deemed "Coral Habitat Areas of Particular Concern." The move, if approved by the U.S. secretary of commerce, would prohibit any type of bottom fishing or mid-water trawling in the area.
The area needs to be protected for a variety of reasons, Brouwer said, including preserving the biodiversity of the ecosystem. Also, pharmaceutical research indicates that deep-water species, in particular sponges, may contain active compounds that could someday be used to treat diseases such as cancer, she said.
Sean McKean, president of the North Carolina Fisheries Association, which has been representing the commercial seafood industry since 1952, said while the protection may be justified, the council should review areas that have been restricted for years.
"I think that is our biggest concern we have," McKean said. "There are constant additions, and there are never any subtractions."
Ross has helped discover a world most people didn't know exists.
"[He] actually drew the country's attention to these ecosystems," said John Miller, professor of zoology at N.C. State. Miller served as Ross' main professor and director of his doctoral work at State.
Ross first tried to locate the deepwater coral reefs in the early 1980s, he said.
After a day of searching, Ross said he had to move on to do other marine sampling on a research cruise that was winding down.
In the 1960s, a Duke University ship accidentally ran across the coral reefs off North Carolina's coast during a training cruise, Ross said. Pictures were taken of the reefs, but the ship's navigation data were not accurate enough for Ross to follow, he said.
In 2000, Ross had gathered additional information about the reef to narrow the search to an area off Cape Lookout, which is in Carteret County east of Morehead City and Beaufort.
After a night of searching, Ross located the coral banks with a depth sounder.
The next day, he made a morning and afternoon submarine dive down to the reefs.
As he moved through the dark, cold stillness of the deep sea, he suddenly encountered the coral mounds, which formed a ridge system a couple of miles long and up to 300 feet high in some places, he said.
"It is like small mountain range on the bottom, except built of coral," he said.
The 2000 trip kicked off a series of cruises in which Ross and a couple others led teams to learn about the deepwater coral reefs off the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and their ecosystems, he said.
'A whole new world'
Ross, son of a stay-at-home mother and a self-employed developer, grew up in the small town of Wadesboro, about 50 miles east of Charlotte.
In 1970, he graduated from McCallie School, a private, all-boys boarding school in Chattanooga, Tenn. At McCallie, he was a member of the swim team and learned how to scuba dive, skills he put to use in the Cayman Islands.
"Being able to see under the water opened up a whole new world," he said. "It all led me toward thinking I wanted a career on the water, but I wasn't sure what that was."
Ross spent the summer of his junior year at Duke University working at UNC-Chapel Hill's marine lab in Morehead City, where he participated in a long-term study on the environmental impact of a nuclear power plant in Southport on the Cape Fear River.
"We also had shark surveys off of Shackleford Banks," near Beaufort, he said. They would trawl for bait, throw long lines in the water, pull live sharks in by hand, and tag and release them.
"And from then on, I said, 'this is something I can do,'" he said.
After finishing graduate school at UNC-CH in 1978, Ross went to work as a fisheries biologist at the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries. He stayed there more than six years, before he returned to school at N.C. State.
"I wanted to be able to make my own way, and in this field you have to a Ph.D. to do that," he said.
At State, Ross found a mentor in Miller.
Miller pushed his students not just to remember facts, but to think beyond the data, Ross said.
"John's test questions never had a right answer, it was just a good answer," he said.
After receiving his Ph.D., Ross worked as research director for the National Estuarine Research Reserve Program and N.C. Coastal Reserve Program.
There, Ross helped establish a program to monitor water quality across the nation using a consistent method. Until that point, most data came from individual scientific projects, lasting from a week to a year, that didn't use the same methods, he said.
"That was an unprecedented move to have that kind of monitoring program throughout the country," Ross said. "We learned all kinds of things, and they are still learning."
Fourth research cruise
On Dec. 1, Ross will depart on his fourth research cruise into the South Atlantic region this year. He will lead an international team, including researchers from six other agencies and universities. The team will depart from Beaufort on the 135-foot R/V Cape Hatteras and travel about 70 miles out to sea.
On the cruise, the crew will split up in shifts to conduct research for 24 hours. Each will have a specific plan and study focus. Scientists from Scotland and the Netherlands will position in the deep reefs two benthic landers, similar to space landers that are used to study Mars, that will monitor and record a year's worth of physical, chemical and biological activity. Another researcher will stain and plant a type of deepwater coral to test whether it can be transplanted onto the living mound.
Amanda Demopoulos, benthic ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, will study the animals that live in the sediments around the reef, and what they are eating.
Demopoulos said when she heads out to sea, she knows she will be exhausted by the time she returns.
"You work really hard. You're up for long hours," she said. "If gear isn't in the water then we are wasting time. That is a Steve Ross cruise."