Before two brand-new, first-of-their-kind autonomous underwater vehicles begin exploring the depths of the world's oceans, they'll get their feet wet in the water off the Treasure Coast.
Known as AUVs, the unmanned, untethered submarines will be aboard the Seward Johnson, a research vessel of the Fort Pierce-based Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, when it sets sail today on a mission to create high-definition sonar maps of the deep-water Lophelia coral reefs.
The Lophelia reef mapping is particularly important because the coral is threatened by bottom-trawling fishing boats and possible offshore oil exploration and drilling.
"If you destroy reef, you destroy habitat," said John Reed, a research professor at the Harbor Branch division of Florida Atlantic University who has been studying and working to protect these deep corals for more than 30 years. "And if you destroy habitat, you destroy fisheries. So by fishing on these reefs, we're shooting ourselves in the foot."