Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Great Barrier Reef of Norfolk: 20 mile chalk bank found of British coast is world's longest


The spectacular chalk reef photographed by diver Rob Spray off the Norfolk coast

It is a mere stone’s throw from the shore and just 25ft under the sea’s surface.
But for 300 million years, no one realised that the world’s longest chalk reef lay off the coast of Norfolk.

It was only when divers surveyed what they thought was a small rocky plain earlier this year, that they discovered the towering arches of rock and deep chasms actually stretched for more than 20 miles

The marine haven has so many species, including sponges, sea slugs and fish, that experts are describing it as ‘Britain’s Great Barrier Reef’.

It is one-and-a-half times longer than the Thanet Coast chalk reefs in Kent, the former record holder.

Diver Rob Spray, 43, whose team discovered the reef, said: ‘It was like finding a natural Stonehenge hidden under the water.’

The true scale of the underwater landscape, which is likely to be made a protected reserve, only emerged when Mr Spray, who runs the Marine Conservation Society survey project, and his team of 20 volunteers were granted funding to do a survey of the structure.

He said: ‘We couldn’t believe it when we found it was actually 20 miles long and had this amazing complex of gullies and arches. In some areas it looks like a moonscape.’

An edible crab, surrounded by Plumose Anemones, discovered living at the reef

Rock fans: A 'smiling' tompot blenny fish and a butterfish are both found on the newly-discovered reef

Three species never before recorded on the East Anglian coast have already been found there; the leopard spotted goby, the blush-red strawberry anemone and the Atlantic ancula sea slug. It is also home to the rock-loving, ‘smiling’ tompot blenny fish.

The team next plan to find out how wide the reef is. Mr Spray added: ‘Every time we went back we found more. I never expected to find anything on this scale in Norfolk.’

Mr Spray, who has been diving in the North Sea with partner Dawn Watson, 41, for 12 years, knew there was a chalk area off the east coast but had always believed it was fairly small.

'We thought it would be a small project, but on the very first day we started five miles west of where we though the reef was and discovered chalk,' he said.

'So after our first dive we had already doubled the size of the known reef and every time we went back we found more and more.

Kate Risely, a Seasearch volunteer meeting a Common Lobster on the Sheringham reef

'We were also stunned to see it had so many significant features, such as the man high rock arches. I found one then suddenly discovered a whole row.

'It reminds me of reefs I have seen in Malta and I never expected to find anything on this scale in Norfolk.'

Mr Spray added: 'The chalk reefs are fantastic for wildlife and are teaming with shoals of reef-loving fish, coated with anemones and hosting characters such as the tompot blenny.

'Animals and plants can live in sand and gravel but they are hostile environments and rocky reefs are much better as they enable creatures to get up into the water column to feed.'

The divers hope the reef will be made into a protected reserve under European law.
They also plan to continue their survey next year to find out how wide the reef is, so they can work out its total area.

'The white chalk gives this reef a really unique character and we hope people will now come to Norfolk to see it for themselves,' he said.

'Norfolk is an easy place to dive and you can walk just 100 metres out from the coast and be on the reef.

'I think the reef will really benefit tourism in the county and we hope it will officially be made into a reserve as it has no real protection at the moment.'

Although less than one per cent of the UK coastline is chalk, the UK has 75 per cent of the chalk reefs in Europe.

The Great Barrier Reef in Australia is the largest reef in the world stretching over 1800 miles.

There are a handful of cold water coral reefs around Britain, including one off Rockall, an isolated island 200 miles off Scotland.

The chalk reef was discovered by divers just off the coast of Norfolk but its exact location has not been disclosed

source: dailymail

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