Scientist Spotlight: John Reed
John is a research professor at Florida Atlantic University, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute. He has been studying deep-water coral reefs for 35 years, doing basic research on these communities, and specializing in the ecology and distribution of bottom-dwelling fauna such as gorgonians, sea fans, and sponges. The science of deep-water coral reefs is a relatively young one with many of the discoveries being made in the past ten years. Surprisingly, as with many of the scientists on this trip, John was not raised near the ocean; he grew up in Ohio. He attributes his early interest in becoming a marine biologist to watching the Jacques Cousteau television series and thinking, “I want to do those sorts of cool things.” And done them he has. He started his college career at Duke, continued at the University of Miami and finished with graduate work at Florida Atlantic University. He has been working in deep-water environments ever since.
One of the more poignant moments on the trip came when we dived a site (known as the CORD site) that John had first discovered almost 30 years ago. In 1982 he was testing the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution’s CORD ROV. John was on the Harbor Branch research vessel Sea Diver and they wanted to see if they could get the ROV to the bottom in the Gulf Stream. So, they went out to 2300 ft of water to dive it. He remembers watching the depth finder seeing the ROV dropping down toward the flat bottom a half-mile below. Just before it got to the bottom, the depth finder showed the bottom shooting up as they were drifting north over a big pinnacle. The engineers were frantically trying to haul in the winch cable and then suddenly John got a 30 second glimpse of the side of the pinnacle. He saw corals and sponges and sea fans; at that time, no one knew there were deep-water reefs out there. Then the CORD ROV crashed into the side of the mound losing the video signal. They recovered the ROV and he still has that videotape.
Friday we got to bottom at the same site with the Jason ROV and started going up the reef slope where he had seen corals, sponges and sea fans 30 years before. As Jason climbed the side of the mound, it suddenly lost its thruster power and we eventually had to bring it to the surface. Unfortunately, John has still not been able to see the top of this reef (maybe in another 30 years, he joked). The CORD dive was the first time these deep-water reefs were discovered off Florida. This week we are discovering even more reefs and just this year NOAA designated nearly 23,000 square miles of these reefs as a marine protected area, the deep-water Coral Habitat Areas of Particular Concern.
The value of these incredible deep-water communities is just now being realized. Some of John’s findings have been in conjunction with the biomedical research group at Florida Atlantic University. They have looked for novel compounds in these communities that might have biomedical applications. One deep-water sponge was found to have potent chemical compounds that, in the laboratory, can kill pancreatic cancer. Who knows what remains to be discovered?
Interview with John (mp3)