The underwater forest in the Gulf of Mexico is a fascinating anomaly to scientists, environmentalists, and divers alike.
It was formed during one of Earth’s many ice ages, when the glaciers melted and sent the once aboveground Alabama forest completely underwater.
For years, it went undetected due to the mud and sand that helped preserve it, but it’s been uncovered since 2004.
It has garnered attention since then, being a unique place to dive, explore, and perhaps ultimately preserve.
One of the biggest proponents of the forest and preserving it is Alabama environmental reporter Ben Raines. For him, the underwater forest started as a rumor. He heard about it in passing at a local dive shop, where the owner was talking about how there were fish making their home in a forest off the coast, 60 feet underwater.
Intrigued by this description, Raines worked hard to convince the owner (a friend of his named Chas Broughton) to show the spot to him. As he did not know where it was, and after months of convincing, he was finally able to see the forest in 2011.
He was entranced by what he found: underwater cypress trees with wood as hard as stone, and little drill marks in them from when ancient beetles made their home in the impressive trunks.
What is the Underwater Forest?
The underwater forest, about 10 miles off the coast of Alabama, is a preserved ice age forest, dated to be around 50,000 to 70,000 years old and about 60 feet underwater.
Much like a peat bog, the underwater forest was well-preserved thanks to a covering of sediment, which prevented it from oxidizing and rotting.
It is believed to have once been a swamp, and the wood recovered from the site is so fresh it even teems with sap from thousands of years ago.
According to researchers’ analysis of the pollen in the sediment, the forest is a lot like the kinds of woodlands that pepper the coasts of North Carolina and Virginia today—which are quite different and considerably colder than what you might expect in Alabama.
For scientists, this is just more proof of how our climate has changed from around 60,000 years ago to now. It may also give a hint on how our current climate will evolve over time, as temperatures continue climbing.
If you were to jump into the water, you’d notice sand and clay giving way to peat.
If you were to really dive in, you’d see the paths of ancient, long-gone rivers, thousands of trees hinting that this place was once a floodplain forest, and, perhaps remarkably, fish.
Sea turtles, fish, and sharks all populate the underwater forest, which has become, in some ways, a unique reef of creatures.
History of the Underwater Forest
While most ice age forests were wiped out by floods when the glaciers began to melt, this one has survived – supposedly because of a covering of mud, that protected it and left it undiscovered.
It wasn’t until 2004, when scientists believe Hurricane Ivan revealed its presence by violently removing 10 feet of sediment from the water as it hit the coast.
Hurricane Ivan had winds that created waves 98 feet tall and passed right over where the forest was discovered.
So, there is good reason to believe it might have been the reason we’re only now finding this environmental anomaly.
Once the secret forest was revealed and written about on AL.com, researchers at Louisiana State University and the University of Southern Mississippi jumped at the chance to get to work on dating it.
Originally, they assumed the underwater forest was only 10,000 years old and from Earth’s most recent ice age.
But after testing pieces of wood they had collected from the trees using radiocarbon dating, they discovered that the forest was actually much, much older. The researchers were stunned, and given the age of the cypress trees, realized there was nothing else like this forest on Earth today.
The forest reveals so much about the history of the world and its climate, especially given how hard it is to have such well-preserved specimens from a time period as far back as 50,000 years ago. It has preserved a forest from a time when sea levels were lower and the Earth was much colder and covered in ice.
This allows us to get an inside look on a past that was previously less accessible to us.
Studying the forest has also revealed to scientists that the Gulf shoreline used to reach 30 to 60 miles further than it does today, and that the islands near the Alabama coast used to be mountain ranges. Because cypress trees, found throughout the underwater forest alongside alder and oak trees, are averse to salt water, it likely means that the forest used to be considerably inland before flooding.
This also helped researchers pinpoint the age of the trees when they died – the oldest being about 500 years old – given signs of stress in cross-sections of the wood that indicate a response to what was likely salt water flooding in from the ocean.
Raines produced a documentary on the underwater forest and is hoping to declare the area a national marine sanctuary. He fears that if the forest is not protected soon, it will be uprooted by those looking to salvage and sell whatever of value they can find in it.
How to Reach the Underwater Forest
Here’s the thing about the underwater forest: Its location is still, for the most part, a secret.
The reason the original dive shop owner was so hesitant to tell Raines about the location is because he was worried that divers would come and take artifacts.
The landscape itself might not have much longer, as Hurricane Ivan’s removing of the protective sediment that kept it so well-preserved means that marine life now has access to the wood. That being said, their interference will likely speed up the deterioration of the forest.
All that is known about the location publicly is that it is south of Fort Morgan and that the ancient river that flowed through it once connected to the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.
If Raines does succeed in making the location a marine sanctuary, then it will open up for fishing and scuba diving while prohibiting anyone from collecting wood from the underwater trees.
As for now, there are only a few people who know the underwater forest’s exact GPS coordinates.
The spot was originally discovered by a fisherman, who stopped in the area because of the high population of red snapper, and the location is also known to Raines’ friend, the local dive shop owner.
So, while there are currently no established avenues to reach the underwater forest, it is not an impossible find either.
Diving into the Underwater Forest
According to Raines, who has done some scuba diving in the area alongside his team and several other researchers, you can find all kinds of wildlife in the underwater forest.
Raines and others have noted seeing sponges, anemones, eels, triggerfish, snappers, belted sandfish, arrow crabs, band tail puffers, and more, swimming about.
Then there are, of course, the plants.
The underwater trees themselves include primarily bald cypresses, alder trees, and oak trees, which researchers have noted still have strong bark, like any tree on land, thanks to their sedimentary-based preservation.
These impressive trees have become much like a coral reef for the marine life that populate the area. Turtles and sponges live in and around the trees and schools of fish confidently swim through now and again.
Because of the delicateness of the ecosystem that has formed around the forest and the rarity of the forest itself, the teams of research scientists that have had the opportunity to dive in the area have followed the same protocol scuba divers use for coral reefs.
This means they treat the area extremely carefully and do things like avoid touching the bottom (which would stir up the mud).
Soon, if Raines achieves his desire to make the spot a National Marine Sanctuary, which he has been working at for several years now, diving shops will likely create trips out to the underwater forest for eager and interested scuba divers.
But for now, it’s either unreachable for recreational diving, or a careful (and environmentally conscious!) treasure hunt away.
Why Dive the Underwater Forest?
The forest is an unbelievable sight. Seeing ancient trees from around 60,000 years ago, turned into a coral reef for a plethora of lively marine creatures, would simply be unlike seeing anything else.
That’s because there really is nothing else like it – that we’ve discovered, at least – and it might not be around for much longer.
While the coordinates of the location are currently being kept under wraps while research teams map the area and push for the U.S. government to protect the site, there is a good chance that in the near future, you could be back-rolling into an ancient underwater forest.
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