There’s a new old coral reef in town and it’s great. Scientists working on surveying the deep ocean around the Galápagos Islands discovered a never-before-seen reef complex hundreds of meters below the sea surface. And despite the current sad state from corals around the world Marine ecosystems appear to thrive on this newly documented (but likely very old) reef.
“The reef is pristine and full of life,” he said Michelle TaylorDeep sea marine biologist at the University of Essex and one of the scientists leading the exploration expedition at a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute press release released this week. Taylor and one of her fellow researchers encountered the corals in the Galápagos Marine Reserve during a project vehicle occupied by people (HOV) Diving. The dive took place in just one day of the larger multi-institute Galapagos Deep 2023 make an effort.
Inside the small submersible, the two scientists had front-row seats to a previously uncharted portion of the seabed. As the HOV (named Alvin) scaled the crest of an underwater volcano, the reef unfolded before them. It was “an amazing vibrant orange carpet as far as the eye can see,” Taylor told Gizmodo in an email. “Scorpion fish, squat lobsters waving their long, lanky arms, spiny sea urchins and an array of pink squid all wandered past Alvin’s windows as we surveyed the area.”
Normally, deep sea reefs have a relatively low percentage of coral cover, around 10-20%, according to the press release. But what sets this system apart is its special power: an estimated 50-60% live coral in many areas that Taylor described to Gizmodo as “rare” and “truly unusual.”
“It’s very unusual to find a thriving deep-sea coral reef with so little evidence of human influence,” she said. “Other deep-sea reef areas studied often have examples of lost fishing gear, debris such as cans, bottles and plastic bags, or even areas that appear to have been trawled and thus stripped of all their reef structure. This reef, however, was immaculate; just a dense mass of layers of ancient coral with an overlay of living coral on top.”
Other shallow water reefs throughout the archipelago have not improved either. Prior to this week’s discovery, Wellington Reef off the coast of Darwin Island was believed to be one of the few corals in the region to have survived an El Niño-related warming of 1982-1983, according to the press release. But the new find suggests that other, as yet unknown, reef communities may exist in the Galápagos.
There are a few reasons scientists believe the extraordinary reef has remained so intact and alive. For one, the Galapagos Marine Protected Area was declared in 1998, protecting the area from a boom in industrial fishing and bottom trawling that can destroy thousands of years of coral reef growth over the course of a single day, he said Stuart Banks in an email to Gizmodo. He is an oceanographer with the Charles Darwin Foundation and was the second scientist to be present in the HOV during the discovery.
Then there are the ocean currents that make the entire Galápagos marine system so productive, Banks added. Finally, deep-sea reefs are less affected by heat stress and bleaching, which are known to decimate shallow corals. In the long term, however, even the deepest reefs are not immune to the threat of climate change, the oceanographer noted.
Finding the new coral ecosystem is the first step in better protecting it, Banks said. “The only way we can help protect these areas is by understanding what’s there, how they’ve changed over time, and how they’re connected.”
Also, monitoring this reef could improve the prospects for other corals around the world. “This newly discovered reef is potentially an area of global importance,” Taylor said in the press release. It is “a canary in the mine for other reefs worldwide – a place we can monitor over time to see how pristine habitat is evolving with our current climate crisis.”
Click through to see more of this spectacular underwater discovery.