Massive New Coral Reef Discovered

Confirming that the Ocean really is just that big.

We know far more about outer space than we do about the Earth’s oceans. This was reinforced this week by the discovery of a giant coral reef off the coast of Australia. And by big, I mean taller than the Eiffel Tower, taller even than the Empire State Building! Rising roughly 500 meters from the sea floor, the newly discovered detached reef is comparable in height to Canada’s own CN Tower, and is about 1.5 kilometers wide. More amazingly, though, this is the largest reef discovered since 1900 (that’s over 120 years!). “This unexpected discovery affirms that we continue to find unknown structures and new species in our Ocean,” said Wendy Schmidt, co-founder of Schmidt Ocean Institute. “The state of our knowledge about what’s in the Ocean has long been so limited. Thanks to new technologies that work as our eyes, ears and hands in the deep ocean, we have the capacity to explore like never before. New oceanscapes are opening to us, revealing the ecosystems and diverse life forms that share the planet with us.” The Schmidt Ocean Institute, in tandem with James Cook University, discovered the reef last month aboard the Falkor vessels, currently on a 12 month exploration of Australia’s oceans. 

The discovery comes at an uncertain time for coral reefs. In the past 30 years, the world’s largest and most diverse coral reef, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, has lost more than 50% of its coral due to climate change. Coral reefs are sensitive ecosystems, and even a small temperature change in the water can cause reefs to bleach, or die. Contrary to popular belief, coral reefs are not actually plants, but rather collections of tiny organisms and algae that hide in protective calcium rich “shells.” When the water becomes too warm or too cool for these beings, they abandon their protective home. These organisms give reefs their immense colour pallet, so when they leave, the reef is left white and skeletal (hence the term bleaching). Coral polyps also serve as the basis for reef food chains, which quickly collapse in their absence. Although it is possible for coral polyps to return to bleached reefs, it is exceedingly rare, even with conservation efforts from humans. The newly discovered reef, which lays about 6 kilometers past the Great Barrier Reef itself (along the coast of Queensland, on Australia’s north eastern shore) has brought new hope to marine biologists and environmental activists alike– because it’s in near perfect health.

Reefs in Australia’s northern oceans have been disproportionately more affected by bleaching than reefs further south, as the world’s ocean’s warm. The new reef, located off of Cape York, Australia’s northernmost point, showing no signs of bleaching, is particularly encouraging to conservationists. Re-coralling efforts along the Great Barrier Reef have had varying success since beginning in 2012. With continued study of the new reef, conservationists hope to be able to better understand the process of coral bleaching and prevention, as well as better strategies to continue the re-coralling process on bleached sections of the Great Barrier. “To find a new half-a-kilometer tall reef in the offshore Cape York area of the well-recognized Great Barrier Reef shows how mysterious the world is just beyond our coastline,” said Dr. Jyotika Virmani, executive director of Schmidt Ocean Institute. “This powerful combination of mapping data and underwater imagery will be used to understand this new reef and its role within the incredible Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.” 

The reef was discovered on October 20 by a group of scientists from James Cook University mapping the seafloor. Using a submersible robot, fondly nicknamed SuBastian, the team was able to not only see the discovery in real time, but also collect samples. After being examined by the research team at JC University and the colleagues at the Schmidt Ocean Institute, these samples will be archived at the Museum of Queensland and the Museum of Tropical Queensland. These samples will join hundreds of others collected by the Falkor mission, including over 30 new species of fish, 5 undescribed species of coral, and deep sea coral gardens and graveyards that the mission has found over its 10 month journey so far.

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