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Every now and then, a marine scientist finds something that reminds us how little we know about what's underneath the ocean. A case in point has just been published in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In this study, a team of American scientists says it has found a vast underwater forest in an unexpected location.

NPR's John Nielsen has the story.

JOHN NIELSEN: People who have only seen the part of a kelp bed that spreads out across the surface of an ocean tend not to be especially impressed. Marine biologists, like Michael Graham of San Jose State University, say that's because a lot of them don't know that there is usually an underwater forest beneath the seaweed floating on the surface.

Mr. MICHAEL GRAHAM (Marine Biologist, San Jose State University): These plants can grow basically down to about 100, 150 feet depth and still grow to the surface. So it is really like being in a forest. They're knocking down the light. There's less water motion. You tend to get the feel - the feeling that you're somewhere else.

NIELSEN: Sea creatures of every size and shape hang out inside these underwater forests, weathering storms, laying eggs and hiding from big things that want to eat them. Graham says scientists don't know everything about how kelp forest works. One thing they thought they knew for sure was that there wasn't any need to look for kelp beds in the tropics. That's because tropical waters were supposed to be too warm for plants like those. Every now and then, a bit of kelp would come up on an anchor in the tropics. But Graham says few of his colleagues paid any attention to those reports.

Mr. GRAHAM: The general scientific community had no idea about these things. And the ones who knew just kind of blew them off as, oh, yeah, these things happen. Well, you really can't explain it.

NIELSEN: That reaction stopped this week, when Graham and several colleagues announced that they had located a giant set of kelp forests near Ecuador's Galapagos Islands.

Marine biologist Jim Estes of the University of California at Santa Cruz says it's the kind of paper that makes people start rewriting textbooks.

Mr. JIM ESTES (Marine Biologist, University of California at Santa Cruz): It's just fairly stunning. And it really does fly in the face of many things that we've held sacred about the distribution of kelps. I like the paper quite a bit because it gives us a very different view of the biogeography of coastal ecosystems.

NIELSEN: Biologist Michael Graham says he decided to look for kelp beds near Ecuador because of a computer model made by his team. The model had been programmed to identify waters that had everything a kelp forest needed to thrive. To his surprise, it highlighted a huge patch of ocean off the coast of Ecuador. Not long afterwards, Graham arrived in Ecuador with a skeptical crew and several hundred thousand dollars worth of borrowed equipment.

He says that trip that followed was the worst experience of his life, at least at the beginning. On the first day, he lost both of the unmanned submarines he'd hoped to use to find the kelp. Not long after that, he lost the anchor on his research boat, and then he lost the power. Graham says he and a colleague decided to put on their scuba gear and take one exploratory dive before giving up and going home. After sinking roughly 30 feet, he says he landed on the very kelp plants he'd been looking for.

Mr. GRAHAM: Not only that, but we landed in a forest of it. And as we kept going, they were getting denser, they were getting bigger and they were getting healthier. And then we stopped at our depth's limits and we couldn't go any farther. And we just, we're just presuming it keeps going.

NIELSEN: He says the forest was rich with life.

Mr. GRAHAM: We had turtles and iguanas and mola mola sunfish - these are this massive pelagic fish coming through. We had sharks in the system.

NIELSEN: Graham says his computer model suggests that there are many more tropical kelp forests out there waiting to be discovered. He hopes to find the next one off the coast of Costa Rica.

John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.

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