An ancient, underwater forest off the coast of Alabama — hidden until recently by Mother Nature — is on track to become the second U.S. marine sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council voted unanimously this month to support the forest’s designation as a federal marine sanctuary, and to send a letter expressing that support to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Sanctuary status would still allow fishing and diving, but it would forbid disturbing the forest itself.
Ben Raines, executive director of the Weeks Bay Foundation, has been a leading advocate for saving the forest since he first saw it in 2012. After successfully pushing the council to support his efforts, he says he’s optimistic NOAA will agree the forest warrants protection.
“This is a great step toward protecting the forest,” Raines tells the Mobile Press-Register. “With the approval of the Gulf Council, we can move ahead toward a final designation from NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries program. … The underwater forest really fits in with what the program tries to protect. We’ve had preliminary conversations with NOAA about the forest, and I believe the forest will meet the criteria for the sanctuary designation.”
The forest has been there for at least 50,000 years, hailing from an era with much lower sea levels. It was buried in seabed mud until 2005, when Hurricane Katrina dredged up its sprawling time capsule of cypress trees. This exposed new habitat for marine life, which eventually led fishermen and divers to the forest. The location remained secret for years, fueled by fears people might damage the trees or harvest their wood. Ocean sediments have preserved the cypress so well it reportedly still smells like fresh sap when cut.