An ancient underwater forest has been discovered in the Gulf of Mexico

Scuba divers have found a 50,000 year-old Bald Cypress forest that was likely uncovered when Hurricane Katrina swept through the region back in 2005.

Top image: A sonar map reveals a primeval underwater ocean and forest. Credit: Grant Harley, Kristine DeLong via LiveScience.

The forest had been buried under ocean sediments, creating a protective, oxygen-free environment for nearly 52,000 years. The tree stumps span an area approximately 0.5 square miles (0.8 km) just off the coast of Mobile, Alabama, and rest about 60 feet (18 meters) below the surface.

According to Ben Raines, one of the first divers to explore the underwater forest, the trees are so well-preserved that, when they are cut, they still smell like fresh Cypress sap.

An ancient underwater forest has been discovered in the Gulf of Mexico

Credit: Dave Carlton.

Tia Ghose, who broke the story on LiveScience, recounts the discovery:

Raines was talking with a friend who owned a dive shop about a year after Hurricane Katrina. The dive shop owner confided that a local fisherman had found a site teeming with fish and wildlife and suspected that something big was hidden below. The diver went down to explore and found a forest of trees, then told Raines about his stunning find.

But because scuba divers often take artifacts from shipwrecks and other sites, the dive shop owner refused to disclose the location for many years, Raines said.

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.

Scientists only have a few years to study the submerged forest before it gets decimated by wood-burrowing marine animals. One thing they’ll be interested in studying are the tree’s growth rings, which will indicate the climate of the Gulf during this time — what is known as the Wisconsin Glacial period.

There’s much more to this story over at LiveScience, including a video.