Underwater Forest Off Alabama Coast Is Over 50,000 Years Old, Kept Secret Since Its Discovery In 2005 [VIDEO]

By Philip Ross on July 9, 2013 10:56 AM EDT

underwater forest
An underwater forest of ancient bald Cypress trees was discovered off the coast of Alabama. The submerged forest (not pictured) has become an artificial reef teeming with sea life. (Photo: Reuters)

An underwater forest of ancient bald Cypress trees was found off the coast of Alabama in the Gulf of Mexico, and its discoverers kept it a secret until recently. The 50,000-year-old underwater forest, a primeval riverbed, was so well preserved that samples taken from the ancient tree trunks still smelled like sap. Ben Raines, who was one of the first divers to explore the underwater forest, described swimming through the stumps and logs as like entering a "fairy world."

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According to Live Science, the ancient underwater forest, which sits about 60 feet beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico several miles from the Alabama coast, spans an area of about .5 square miles. The collection of bald Cypress trees was part of an ancient river channel that ran through the area. Divers can still see where the riverbanks once were and where the edges of the river dropped off. Some of the bald Cypress tree stumps are the size of pickup trucks.

The underwater forest was uncovered in 2005 when it was exposed by the waves from Hurricane Katrina.

Bald Cypress trees are common in the swamps of the southern U.S., and its image has become synonymous with the bayous of Louisiana, Texas and Florida. They can grow to be 120 feet tall, and their branches are often draped with Spanish moss.

Bald Cypress trees, like the ones in the ancient underwater forest off Alabama's coast, are a natural barrier between the ocean and the mainland. Historically, the trees protected the coastline from hurricanes. The swamps of bald Cypress trees act as a "speed bump" for storm surges caused by hurricanes. Unfortunately, large scale logging and the draining of wetlands in the southern U.S. have removed this buffer zone, making coastal cities like New Orleans more vulnerable to hurricanes.

When the underwater forest was first discovered, the fisherman who chanced upon it and the handful of confidants he entrusted with its location kept it a secret for many years. Weather.com reports that about a year after Hurricane Katrina, Raines was chatting with a friend who owned a dive shop. The dive shop owner told Raines that a local fisherman had located a spot teeming with fish and other sea life. When the fisherman told the dive shop owner, he went down to explore and found the underwater forest. From Weather:

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.

Unfortunately, scientists only have a few years to study the underwater forest before the sea takes over.

Here's footage of a similar underwater forest discovered in Hano bay in southern Sweden back in 2009.

Read more from iScience Times:

Oldest Water On Earth: How Did Scientists Find An Ancient Pocket Of Water 2 Miles Underground?

700,000-Year-Old Canadian Horse Fossil Genome Is Oldest DNA Ever Sequenced [REPORT]

Ancient Cave Art Unearthed: Where Did Mexico's 5,000 Paintings Come From?

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