500 m-tall coral reef discovered in Great Barrier Reef

Monday, 09 November, 2020

500 m-tall coral reef discovered in Great Barrier Reef

Australian scientists have discovered what they claim is the first detached reef to be found in more than 120 years, just off Cape York on the Great Barrier Reef — and it’s taller than some of the world’s most prominent structures.

Measuring more than 500 m in height — in comparison, the Empire State Building is only 443 m to the tip — the reef was discovered by scientists aboard Schmidt Ocean Institute’s research vessel Falkor, currently on a 12-month exploration of the ocean surrounding Australia.

Led by Dr Robin Beaman from James Cook University (JCU), the scientists were conducting underwater mapping of the northern Great Barrier Reef seafloor when they came upon the new reef. The team then conducted a dive using Schmidt Ocean Institute’s underwater robot, SuBastian, to explore the reef. The dive was live-streamed, with the high-resolution footage broadcast on the institute’s website and YouTube channel.

“The base of the blade-like reef is 1.5 km wide, then rises 500 m to its shallowest depth of only 40 m below the sea surface,” said Dr Tom Bridge, a Principal Investigator on the expedition who is based at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at JCU. It’s one of eight tall detached reefs in the area, the others having been mapped in the late 1800s.

“We are surprised and elated by what we have found,” Dr Beaman said. “To not only 3D map the reef in detail, but also visually see this discovery with SuBastian, is incredible. This has only been made possible by the commitment of Schmidt Ocean Institute to grant ship time to Australia’s scientists.”

Side mapping profile of the new reef. Image credit: Schmidt Ocean Institute.

“To find a new half-a-kilometre-tall reef in the offshore Cape York area of the well-recognised Great Barrier Reef shows how mysterious the world is just beyond our coastline,” added 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 voyage around the Great Barrier Reef will continue until mid-November as part of Schmidt Ocean Institute’s broader year-long Australia campaign. The maps created will be available through AusSeabed, a national Australian seabed mapping program, and will also contribute to The Nippon Foundation-GEBCO Seabed 2030 Project.

Top image: RV Falkor holding position on the outside of Ribbon Reef #5 as ROV SuBastian works its way up the shelf, working to reveal — for the first time — evidence into the origins of the Great Barrier Reef. Image credit: Dean Miller/SOI.

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