Science, Tech & Environment

After 50,000 years buried under the ocean floor, an ancient cypress forest may get a new kind of protection

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Credit: Courtesy of Ben Raines/AL.com

Fish swim through an ancient forest found 60 feet underwater about 10 miles offshore from Mobile, Alabama.

For many years, Ben Raines was the environment reporter for the Alabama Press-Register. A buddy who owned a scuba diving shop used to taunt him with a tale of an underwater forest.

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In 2012, his friend finally led Raines to the site, swearing him to secrecy. When Raines checked it out, he found a forest of ancient cypress tree stumps on the ocean floor.

Now, in his capacity as Executive Director of the Weeks Bay Foundation, Raines is collaborating with scientists to study the submerged trees, and working on a documentary about it.

The cypress woodland, Raines says, has been buried beneath the ocean floor for more than 50,000 years. When Hurricane Ivan barreled through the Gulf of Mexico in 2004, it created 90-foot waves, some of the biggest waves ever recorded in the Gulf. Raines and his colleagues believe that one set of those giant waves “scoured out about five or six feet of sand,” revealing the stumps. What’s extraordinary, Raines says, is how well-preserved the trees are.

“When you get close and start looking,” he says, “the logs still have bark. We’re actually finding trees that have lightning scars on them...[W]hen you cut into them with a saw, they still smell fresh — like fresh, piney trees and they have sap that oozes out of the cuts.”

This unexpected undersea world is a magical place, says Raines. As you swim through it, you realize “you’re traveling back in time 50,000 years.”

“These were like redwoods,” he explains. “We’ve got stumps down there that are up to ten feet across, and you don’t see trees like that on the Gulf Coast. You can’t really imagine them, but before we were here cutting everything down, that’s what was here — this forest of trees so big, ten people with their arms outstretched couldn’t fit all the way around it holding hands.”

Last year, Raines says, the forest “kind of went viral,” which has led to some predictable results — namely, calls from salvage companies offering to buy the GPS coordinates to the site so they can dig up the stumps and sell them.

To prevent the site from being plundered, Raines and the Weeks Bay Foundation decided to push for it to be turned into a national marine sanctuary. “We’ve made a great deal of headway,” Raines says, “and I believe NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is going to make it a sanctuary where you’ll still be allowed to fish, and you’ll still be allowed to scuba dive, you just won’t be able to steal the stumps off the bottom.”

So far, Raines and his colleagues (and his old friend) have managed to keep the GPS coordinates of the site secret. “I still haven’t given them to the government agencies yet, with the understanding that they’ll get them when they come see the forest,” Raines says.“We’re trying to keep them out of the public record, so very few people have them right now. ... So far, I’ve never seen them published on the Internet or anything like that, but, of course, with any secret, it’s a matter of time.”

Raines says the clock is ticking. “We need to get [the site] protected before the numbers get out, because right now there’s no law that would prevent a company from pulling a stump up off the bottom if they knew where they were.”

Raines hopes his documentary will raise awareness about this enchanted underwater seascape. He and a film crew and a team of scientists have been shooting for about a year. “Hopefully, we’ll have something finished by the end of the summer. We think that may go further than anything else — kind of bringing people to it, showing them that it’s like the Grand Canyon. It’s a natural wonder, and if we pull it up off the bottom, it’s over, it’s gone.”

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