Greetings from the Chukchi Sea, way up in the Arctic north of Alaska, where the team aboard the Greenpeace ship Esperanza is using a small submarine to study the seafloor in the area Shell hopes to begin drilling for oil this summer. During what we believe to be the first research submarine dives ever in the Chukchi Sea, we were surprised to discover large numbers of corals in the midst of Shell’s proposed drill site.

Shell says it knew the corals are there, telling the Washington Post that corals make up nearly 4% of the marine life at the bottom of the Chukchi. To put that in perspective, the South Florida reefs I studied for my masters thesis– and which attract divers from thousands of miles away – often have about 4% coral cover. Personally, I was definitely not expecting corals to be one of the three most commonly seen species on our dives, along with brittle stars and baskets stars.

coral in alaskaCorals are slow growing, long lived, and highly vulnerable to disturbance. They provide habitat for fish and other marine life, often serving as nursery areas for larvae or juveniles. Both the United Nations and the US Government have recognized the importance of protecting corals.

All of this raises questions why there is no mention of Chukchi corals in the environmental impact statement for Shell’s drilling plans. Coral experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration do not appear to have been consulted. The public was not informed. You would think the Department of Interior, which oversees the permitting of offshore drilling, would have learned from the BP Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Instead of moving beyond fiascos like the Gulf assessment which talked about walrus and other Arctic species, it appears little has changed and that environmental impact statements are still treated as little more than bureaucratic requirements to rush through on the way to rubber stamping the next item on Big Oil’s wish list.

There is still time for the Obama administration to take a deep breath and put on the brakes, instead of letting Shell rush to drill in the Arctic. We do not even fully know what is at risk, because most of the area has yet to be explored. And as we discovered firsthand, even some of what Shell does know has not been appropriately made available to the public or taken into consideration by the Department of Interior.

There is still time to save the Arctic from reckless offshore drilling.

Photo: © Jiri Rezac/ Greenpeace