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Underwater forest: Ancient cypress forest buried off Alabama's coast

Divers discovered an underwater forest in the Gulf of Mexico. Some of the trees in the underwater cypress forest were thousands of years old before they were buried underwater.

By Tia GhoseLiveScience.com / July 8, 2013

Fish swim through an ancient forest found 60 feet underwater about 10 miles offshore from Mobile, Ala. Scientists who examined the trees remarked on how well preserved the wood was. The forest was apparently buried under a thick layer of sand for eons until it was uncovered by giant waves during Hurricane Katrina.

Ben Raines/AI.com/AP/File

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Scuba divers have discovered a primeval underwater forest off the coast of Alabama.

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The Bald Cypress forest was buried under ocean sediments, protected in an oxygen-free environment for more than 50,000 years, but was likely uncovered by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said Ben Raines, one of the first divers to explore the underwater forest and the executive director of the nonprofit Weeks Bay Foundation, which researches estuaries.

The forest contains trees so well-preserved that when they are cut, they still smell like fresh cypress sap, Raines said.

The stumps of the Cypress trees span an area of at least 0.5 square miles (1.3 square kilometers), several miles from the coast of Mobile, Ala., and sit about 60 feet (18 meters) below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.

Despite its discovery only recently, the underwater landscape has just a few years to be explored, before wood-burrowing marine animals destroy the ancient forest. 

Closely guarded secret

Raines was talking with a friend who owned a dive shop about a year after Hurricane Katrina. The dive shop owner confided that a local fisherman had found a site teeming with fish and wildlife and suspected that something big was hidden below. The diver went down to explore and found a forest of trees, then told Raines about his stunning find. 

But because scuba divers often take artifacts from shipwrecks and other sites, the dive shop owner refused to disclose the location for many years, Raines said.

In 2012, the owner finally revealed the site's location after swearing Raines to secrecy. Raines then did his own dive and discovered a primeval cypress swamp in pristine condition. The forest had become an artificial reef, attracting fish, crustaceans, sea anemones and other underwater life burrowing between the roots of dislodged stumps. 

Some of the trees were truly massive, and many logs had fallen over before being covered by ocean sediment. Raines swam the length of the logs.

"Swimming around amidst these stumps and logs, you just feel like you're in this fairy world," Raines told LiveScience's OurAmazingPlanet.

Primeval forest

Raines reached out to several scientists to learn more about the forest. One of those scientists was Grant Harley, a dendrochronologist (someone who studies tree rings) at the University of Southern Mississippi.

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