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A mountain of a reef, taller than the Eiffel Tower, found on Great Barrier Reef

Side mapping profile of new 500 m detached reef. Image by Schmidt Ocean Institute.

  • Researchers have recently found a large, detached coral reef, measuring more than 500 meters (1,640 feet) in height, in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in Australia.
  • This is the eighth known detached coral reef in the area, and the first to be discovered in the past 120 years.
  • While little is known about these reefs, scientists have observed that they host an array of marine life.
  • This particular reef doesn’t appear to have been affected by the recent bleaching events at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, according to the lead researcher.

Researchers have just made a remarkable discovery in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in Australia. While mapping the seafloor off the coast of far north Queensland state, scientists onboard the RV Falkor stumbled upon a huge detached coral reef — the first one to be found in the last 120 years.

This detached coral reef is more than 500 meters (1,640 feet) tall, according to the Schmidt Ocean Institute, the foundation facilitating the expedition. That’s about one and a half times as tall as the Eiffel Tower, or one and three-tenths as high as the Empire State Building.

Broad mapping profile of new 500 m detached reef. Image by Schmidt Ocean Institute.

“[It’s exciting] that we can still find such unusually tall … reefs in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park,” Robin Beaman, the expedition leader and a marine geologist at James Cook University, told Mongabay in an email from aboard the RV Falkor. “[P]eople … have been mapping the Great Barrier Reef since 1770 when James Cook first sailed here. Since then, we have been progressively mapping the shallower coral reefs with technologies as advanced as airborne lidar bathymetry. But it still takes a modern multibeam-sonar equipped vessel, like the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s RV Falkor, to look in the right place and then do the 100% systematic mapping required in the deeper and more remote waters of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, to reveal such surprising discoveries.”

Last week, the researchers found the large reef while on a voyage to study the northern section of the park, off the coast of Cape York Peninsula. To fully explore the reef, the team deployed a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), the ROV SuBastian, which dropped to the base of the reef and worked its way up, capturing the entire process in 4K video and collecting biological samples. Beaman said the ROV process was a bit like “mountain climbing,” but in the sea.

Underwater robot Subastian being deployed off of Falkor RV. Image by Schmidt Ocean Institute.

“There was marine life all the way up the reef, but near the summit where waters are warmer and sunlit, there was a thriving shallow coral reef ecosystem — healthy looking coral colonies, a blizzard of coral fish and large sharks circling,” Beaman said.

The newly discovered reef, which has been described as “blade-like” by scientists, is about 1.5 kilometers (0.9 miles) wide at its base, and rises up to 500 meters, the shallowest depth being around 40 meters (130 feet) below sea level. The reef is entirely separate from the Great Barrier Reef’s main shelf edge, and considered to be “mesophotic” since it’s deeper than 30 meters (100 feet). Right now, little is known about why these detached reefs exist, according to the Schmidt Ocean Institute.

A cuttlefish living on the newly discovered detached coral reef. Image by Schmidt Ocean Institute.

While the Great Barrier Reef has been hit hard by coral bleaching events, including large swaths of the northern section of the park, the newly discovered reef seemed mostly intact, Beaman said.

There are seven other known detached reefs in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, including the reef at Raine Island, one of the world’s largest sea turtle rookeries.

“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,” Jyotika Virmani, executive director of the Schmidt Ocean Institute, said in a statement. “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.”

Banner image caption: Side mapping profile of new 500 m detached reef. Image by Schmidt Ocean Institute.

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

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