Freakishly Tall Coral Reef Found Off the Coast of Australia

Digital seafloor map showing the newly detected detached reef.
Digital seafloor map showing the newly detected detached reef.
Image: Schmidt Ocean Institute

An isolated coral reef measuring 1,640 feet tall has been discovered off the coast of Australia. Known as a detached reef, the blade-like vertical structure could serve as habitat for a variety of undiscovered sea creatures.

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At 1,640 feet (500 meters), the gigantic detached reef stands taller than the 1,250-foot-tall (381-meter) Empire State Building. Researchers with the Schmidt Ocean Institute made the surprising discovery on October 20 while mapping the seafloor of the northern Great Barrier Reef. The team confirmed the finding a few days later using a remotely operated vehicle, according to a statement released by the group.

Working on the research vessel Falkor, the Schmidt Ocean Institute researchers are participating in a year-long expedition to study the ocean surrounding the Australian continent. The detached reef—the first of its kind to be discovered since the 19th century—was found about 80 miles (130 km) off Cape York, Queensland.

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Following the initial detection on October 20, the team deployed the institute’s ROV SuBastian to investigate further (hmm, Falkor, SuBastian—guessing someone at the Schmidt Ocean Institute is a fan of The NeverEnding Story). The event was broadcast live on the institute’s website and YouTube, and the footage is still available should you have two-and-a-half hours to kill.

Research vessel Falkor near the site of the newly detected detached reef.
Research vessel Falkor near the site of the newly detected detached reef.
Image: Schmidt Ocean Institute

The base of the structure measures nearly a mile wide (1.5 km), and it extends vertically such that the tip sits just 130 feet (40 meters) below the ocean surface. At the crest of the reef, where the blade-like structure measures 984 feet (300 meters) by 164 feet (50 meters), the team spotted lots of fish, including sharks, as ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) reports.

They’re called detached reefs because they’re stand-alone structures that aren’t physically connected to the Great Barrier Reef and are bedded directly to the seafloor. The Guardian reports that the reef doesn’t have a lot of hard corals in its upper section, but it does feature plenty of sponges, sea fans, and soft corals—a sign that strong currents and upwellings from below are delivering rich currents to the structure.

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The detached coral is thought to be around 20 million years old, and it’s one of seven detached reefs clustered to within 93 miles (150 km) of each other. The other structures were mapped in the 1880s, including the reef at Raine Island—a crucial breeding ground for green sea turtles.

“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 Jyotika Virmani, executive director of Schmidt Ocean Institute, in its 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.”

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These isolated seamounts are of biological importance, as they can give rise to unique communities of marine organisms and even trigger the emergence of new species. This reef will likely be studied intensely for the months and years to come.

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In the past year alone, researchers with the Schmidt Ocean Institute have made a host of intriguing new finds, including a 148-foot-long (45-meter) siphonophore, several undescribed species of black coral and sponges, and upwards of 30 new species. The mind boggles at how much there’s still to learn about our oceans and the creatures living within them.

George is a senior staff reporter at Gizmodo.

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DISCUSSION

plectro1
Darwinian Man

Is this an example of Darwin’s model of atoll formation, where the corals keep building up into the photic zone as the prominence the reef originally formed on gradually sinks deeper and deeper?

It would be interesting to know how far down you have to go here before you hit bedrock.