Explorers of the Great Barrier Reef discovered a giant coral crest higher than the Empire State Building.
This week, a team of scientists reported finding an isolated coral feature protruding from the sea floor at an altitude of nearly a third of a mile. Its discoverers called it the first major new element of Australia’s famous reef system identified in more than 120 years.
Furthermore, new reefs are thriving, in contrast to many of the diseased reefs in the Great Barrier and globally. Corals in warm, polluted waters are often subjected to stress from the environment that can cause them to turn white and, if prolonged, will kill them. Waste is known as coral bleaching.
“It was a good day,” said Robin Beaman of James Cook University, the expedition’s lead scientist, when the team brought the new giant reef to light for the first time.
This discovery was made during a joint research expedition by Australian scientists and the Schmidt Institute of Oceans, based in Palo Alto, California. Founded by Eric Schmidt, former president of Google and his wife, Wendy, the institute allows scientists to use their research vessel, Falkor, for free. Almost the length of a football field, the ship can map the seabed remotely with a beam of sound and automated robots are strapped lower to capture a close-up image of undiscovered depth. .
This year, the Australian team used the ship to probe the Coral Sea, searching for exotic features and life forms, as well as the water-level depths off Western Australia. There, it stumbles upon a curled slime creature estimated to be 150 feet long, possibly the world’s longest example of marine life.
From a distance, the Great Barrier Reef appears like a single giant structure of coral outcrops. It is the largest reef system in the world, running along Australia’s northeast coast for more than 1,500 miles, and has generated a lot of concern because its shallow portions have been bleached many times. But it is not continuous. Instead, it consists of hundreds of islands and thousands of individual reefs – some surrounding the islands, some free standing, some forming long strips parallel to the coastline.
The new lie discovery is just north of the reef from the Cape York peninsula, a wilderness area in the far north of Australia with few towns, harbors or tourists about 60 miles away. That makes its nearby reefs relatively difficult to visit and explore.
For a long time, though, navigators have charted seven peak cracks in the headland that, by definition, fall outside the main barrier system. Immersed in crystal clear waters, detached coral reefs are filled with sponges, corals and colorful fish – as well as sharks – and are oases for migratory marine life. Their remoteness makes the spiers less researched, and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has designated them to be the highest level of protection, restricting activities such as commercial fishing. A detached reef on Raine Island is the most important nesting site in the world for blue sea turtles.
The new peak was found about a mile and a half from a detached reef. Dr. Beaman, who previously served in the Royal Australian Navy as a hydrological surveyor, said he and his team were sure it had not been known before. Its seven relatives, he added, were all charted in the 1880s, more than 120 years ago.
He said the team first saw the new high on October 19 and mapped it the next day with a sonic beam detailing its deep contours. “We can see it in 3-D,” he said. The team then went on an expedition dive on October 25 with an underwater robot, streaming close-up images on the Schmidt Institute’s website and YouTube channel.
“It was thrilling,” said Dr. Beaman of the summit’s tumultuous life. “There are sharks everywhere, three different types.” The dive not only found hosts of fish and corals, but also found the shells of baffled pirates – a living fossil that dates back half a billion years ago.
Dr. Beaman said the reef’s limestone base is about a mile wide and the top is 1,690 feet high, about 130 feet below sea level.
The spiers are very ancient, he said, slowly growing over millions of years to reach their present heights. Dr. Beaman said it happened when the seabed receded following Australian rocky footsteps that moved down geological time in a process known as continental drift. In response, corals continue to build new layers so that their symbiotic algae are close enough to the surface to receive sunlight for photosynthesis.
“They grow from the top down,” he said of the pointed towers. “They continue to cling to this living area.” Dr. Beaman added that the expedition found hundreds of small peaks that were unable to create enough new layers, known as drowning reefs.
“This one was trying to survive and is still growing,” he said of the newly discovered reef. “The corals are very simple. But they build these amazing structures.