CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) – Deep+S-sea biologist Scott France just came back from a place as unknown and dangerous as outer space.

At 1.4 miles below the ocean’s surface, a series of extinct volcanoes rises off the shore of Cape Cod.

Like astronauts, France, a College of Charleston professor, and graduate student Mercer Brugler were locked into a vehicle headed for a pitch-black place where unprotected humans can’t survive for even an instant and that few have visited.

“It’s exciting,” Brugler said. “It has to be better than going up on the moon, because the moon has nothing live.”

The deep sea does and many of the creatures are new discoveries: large red squid, single-celled animals the size of golf balls, orange-colored coral that stands 10 feet tall, sponges that look like grapefruit and coral resembling purple parasols.

France and Brugler viewed this strange new world on an Ocean Explorer expedition.

The cruise of the Atlantis and dives of the submersible Alvin mark the third year of the federal program designed to learn about the least-known part of the planet.

This year’s nine-day voyage was hugely successful, said France, a principal investigator on the cruise earlier this month.

Coral he collected began arriving at his lab Tuesday, and many samples are heading to the Smithsonian Institution and Yale University for study.

France specializes in genetics of two types of deep-sea coral, some of which is being destroyed by fishing trawls, which can mow down slow-growing colonies that are several hundred to 1,800 years old.

“There has been terrible destruction to coral in the Gulf of Maine,” he said.

No one knows whether the coral, in free-swimming larval form, can move to new places or whether fishing might wipe out all coral in an area or an entire species.That could happen before people learn the compounds, potential medical treatments and cures that deep-sea corals may hold, France said.

Compounds that corals produce are being tested for use as antibiotics and painkillers as well as treatment of heart disease, cancer, AIDS and asthma. Some anti-inflammatory compounds already are being used.

The corals being examined generally grow in shallower water. Bioprospecting, thanks to new technology, is just now letting scientists collect the deep-water corals that France studies. They include black corals, too difficult to collect until the Alvin’s arms plucked samples, as they did during France’s dives.

“Virtually nothing lives on black coral. That suggests to me that they are producing a compound,” France said.

Brugler carried buckets full of black coral from the Alvin to a cold room aboard the research vessel and discovered that sheets of mucus would fall from the branches. When he cleaned the storage room at the end of the cruise, “It was disgusting,” he said.

Black corals, covered in orange or white living polyps, have hard black skeletons that are sometimes polished and made into black coral jewelry.

France will study videos shot from Alvin to learn whether the tentacles of each polyp grab food from the water or just capture what floats by. He also studies octocorals including sea fans, sea whips and sea pansies. Growing in deep and shallow water, octocorals produce hard skeletons covered with colonies of live polyps.

, whose stomachs all are connected by a tube. A colony may form a sea whip 9 feet tall on the side of a seamount.

A rich array of creatures lives on the octocorals that France observed through the Alvin’s circular window, covered with glass thick enough to handle the intense pressure.

The Ocean Explorer voyage, called Mountains in the Sea, included dives on three seamounts. France was aboard the Alvin July 16 for the first human viewing of Kelvin Seamount while Brugler got the first human view of Manning Seamount earlier.

France competed with marine scientists around the country for a chance to take the cruise and carry out his research. The main objectives were to learn where coral colonies grow on seamounts and gather other basic information so their possible locations could be predicted or mapped. If the time comes that the coral needs protecting, fishing could be limited in coral habitat, he said.

He also is studying the corals to learn about their reproduction, when they release eggs or whether polyps might hold their eggs for fertilization.

If even one larva reaches a new seamount, the animal can reproduce by itself and form a new colony. When isolated, a species tends to change and become a new species.

Corals may have been evolving as scientists on the voyage watched. France is already making plans for next year, and Brugler, who expects to complete his master’s degree in about a year, wants to make more deep-sea dives.

“It’s unbelievable to see all the things alive that I usually see frozen in a lab. It’s awesome,” Brugler said. “It made a huge impact on me.”

AP-ES-07-24-03 1538EDT

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