Submerged and underwater forests can be found all over the world. The term covers multiple types of forests, but commonly describes those with remains of trees that have been drowned due to rising sea levels and have been preserved thanks to cold water temperatures. These types of forests are often formed when a dam is established on a river, causing water to back up and create a lake over established forests. But not all underwater forests are dead. Some involve cypress or mangrove trees, which have special roots that allow them to breathe air and survive while submerged.
Kelp forests are also examples of living underwater forests. Growing in dense groupings, kelp, which is actually large, brown algae, provides critical habitat for marine wildlife. Kelp forests are also key players in greenhouse gas regulation, absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen.
Underwater forests are fascinating places no matter their type. Long-dead forests offer valuable history lessons, while living ones support unique wildlife and often benefit the environment. Let’s explore a variety of submerged forests across the world.
The Underwater Forest (Alabama, U.S.)
An ancient underwater forest teeming with aquatic life exists just off the coast of Alabama in the United States. Scientists discovered the cypress forest 60 feet underwater in the Gulf of Mexico after giant waves resulting from 2004’s Hurricane Ivan uncovered it. Researchers believe the forest had been buried beneath sediments in the Gulf for ages and might date back to an ice age more than 60,000 years ago. When the forest was young, sea levels were about 400 feet lower than they are today. Rising water eventually hid the forest from plain sight.
Under the surface, aquatic life thrives. Thousands of trees are still rooted there, providing unique habitat and foraging opportunities for aquatic animals, including mantis shrimp, crabs, anemones, and a number of fish species. Because the forest dates back millennia, it can provide valuable information about its region’s history, from climate change to biodiversity patterns.
Lake Bezid (Romania)
In Lake Bezid you’ll find a sunken forest and an entire sunken village. It was formed after the town was completely flooded in 1988 when a dam was built. As a result, the water covered 100 houses that now litter the lake’s floor like a watery graveyard. Dead remnants of trees still rise above the lake’s surface, as does an old church tower.
Great African Seaforest (South Africa)
You may recognize the Great African Seaforest from television. The lush kelp forest was showcased in the 2020 Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher, which follows a diver as he develops a unique bond with an octopus who welcomes him into her underwater world.
The Great African Seaforest is the only forest of giant bamboo kelp in the world. It extends from the shores of Cape Town to Namibia (a distance of more than 600 miles) and is the site of the discovery of the oldest archaeological evidence of art and science.
This stunning underwater forest is rich in marine life, home to about 14,000 different plant and animal species. In addition to the cuttlefish, octopuses, and colorful starfish that live among the long, brown kelp strands, sharks endemic to South Africa frequent the area to lay eggs.
Lake Periyar (India)
Lake Periyar is the site of a sunken forest, now dead tree stumps that once made up a living forest. Stumps and snags rise out of the water dramatically and tower over the lake’s surface in an almost menacing way.
The lake was formed when the Mullaperiyar Dam was built in 1895, flooding the thick forest and rough landscape in the area. The unique reservoir is part of a protected area serving as an elephant and tiger reserve. The total protected area is about 357 square miles (Lake Periyar measures just 10 square miles) and it was officially declared as the Periyar National Park in 1982.
Clear Lake (Oregon)
Lava flows from the High Cascades dammed Oregon’s McKenzie River about 3,000 years ago, preserving the area’s pristine forest and creating Clear Lake. When explorers searching for a route over the Cascade Mountains discovered the cold, clear lake in 1859, they didn’t realize an entire ecosystem lay just below its surface.
The lake sits at an altitude of over 3,000 feet, so its temperature is near freezing year-round. Despite the cold temperatures, divers flock to Clear Lake, nestled in the Willamette National Forest, to swim through the ancient sunken forest that’s home to an array of fascinating plants and animals.
Active underground springs predominantly feed Clear Lake, which gives it its signature clear look. The crystal clear waters even allow you to view the underground forest from above, and you can kayak or paddleboard over the giant trees for a closer look.
Lake Huron (Michigan, U.S.)
Located about two miles off the shores of Lake Huron lies a petrified forest in 40 feet of water. Using carbon dating, scientists have determined the trees to be nearly 7,000 years old. The petrified trees originally grew on dry land, so their discovery suggests that the Great Lakes area had a very different landscape thousands of years ago.
Since the discovery of the submerged forest, researchers have found evidence of ancient hunting camps and believe that early hunters were able to roam and run through the lake. The area is now a popular diving spot, attracting underwater explorers from across the globe.
Lake Kaindy (Kazakhstan)
Lake Kaindy is a 1,300-foot-long lake located about 6,600 feet above sea level in Kolsay Lakes National Park, Kazakhstan. The 1911 Kebin earthquake triggered a major limestone landslide, which caused a natural dam and formed the lake. Frigid water temperatures helped preserve the forest under the surface.
The lake is absolutely stunning, with vivid turquoise waters through which tall, thin tree trunks grow. The trees, of species Picea schrenkiana, are evergreens native to the Tien Shan mountains and are commonly referred to as Shrenk’s spruces or Asian spruces.
The toothpick-like trunks above the water’s surface are seemingly barren, stripped of life due to prolonged exposure to the elements. Underneath, however, is another story. Pale green algae cover the underwater branches and trunks of the trees. The spectacular sight draws visitors from across the world who can dive and paddle around it.
Caddo Lake (Texas, U.S.)
On the border between Texas and Louisiana lies Caddo Lake, a 25,400-acre lake home to the world’s largest cypress forest. Geologists believe the lake was formed sometime in the past thousand years after an enormous log jam on the Red River created a dam and flooded the low-lying area where the lake is today.
Caddo Lake is shallow and sprawling, filled with cypress trees that are covered in Spanish moss. These trees are alive and well, with special roots called pneumatophores that protrude above the water to capture oxygen.
Caddo Lake wetlands are home to a tremendous number of various plants and animals. The area provides critical habitat for more than 40 endangered, threatened, and rare native species.
Kampong Phluk (Cambodia)
Only a few thousand people live in Kampong Phluk, a collection of three floating villages known for their clusters of tall houses on wooden stilts. The community is built within the floodplains of the Tonle Sap Lake in an area surrounded by a flooded mangrove forest. There, waterbirds, fish, crocodiles, turtles, and other wildlife thrive.
During the wet season, the nearby Mekong River fills with snowmelt and runoff from monsoons. Water backs up into the Tonle Sap River, which then fills Tonle Sap Lake, where Kompong Phluk is. Like cypress trees, mangroves have natural conduits that protrude out of the water and allow them to breathe while submerged.
Lake Volta (Ghana)
Actually a reservoir, Lake Volta is one of the world’s largest artificially created lakes, covering an area of about 3,275 square feet.13 About 78,000 people were relocated and 120 buildings destroyed as the area was flooded and the lake formed after the completion of the Akosombo Dam in 1965. Thousands of hardwood trees were left still standing after the flood and many of them still lurk near the surface.
Borth Beach (Wales)
Harsh winds and pounding waves striking the beach near Ynylas, near Borth, Wales, expose its thousand-year-old secret: it used to be a thriving forest. The evidence, including long-dead tree stumps and compacted peat, emerges after stormy weather washes away the sand covering it.
The ancient petrified forest consists of stumps of oak, pine, birch, willow, and hazel trees preserved by the anaerobic conditions in the peat. Radiocarbon dating suggests the trees died around 1500 BC.
Doggerland (Great Britain)
Scientists believe a submarine landslide off the coast of Norway, the Storegga Slide, flooded coastal land surrounding Doggerland around 6200 BC.
Before that catastrophe, Doggerland was made up of thick forests and marshland and was home to Mesolithic people who used it as a seasonal hunting ground. The people were flooded out of the area over time as glaciers and ice sheets began to melt.
Evidence of Doggerland was first discovered in the first half of the 20th century, and in the 1990s fishermen came across animal tusks and ancient tools. Scientists and archaeologists have since explored the area thoroughly, discovering peat and fossilized forests beneath the seafloor.