Stunning deep-sea reef "teeming with life" discovered and filmed in HD
In a much-needed win for the marine environment, a never-before-seen deep-sea reef featuring coral thousands of years old and “teeming with life” has been discovered in the Galápagos Marine Reserve.
The 1.2-mile (1.9-km) expanse was found by an underwater explorer more than 1,300-feet (400-m) below the surface, at the summit of an underwater volcano, in the center of a large archipelago. Prior to this groundbreaking find, it was thought that Wellington Reef off the coast of Darwin Island was one of the few coral reefs to have survived the region’s 1982-84 El Niño.
The deep-sea discovery also unearthed a collection of coral thought to be thousands of years old, as well as an array of diverse marine life sheltering among the structures, including octopus, sea urchins and squat lobsters.
"The discovered reefs are novel for several reasons – in shallow reefs where finding 10-20% of coral cover would be considered a relatively unhealthy reef, in the deep-sea this is the norm,” said expedition co-lead Michelle Taylor, from the University of Sussex. “Dead coral skeletons making up the remaining 80-90% still provide homes for a huge diversity of life, which is less reliant on the live sections of coral. However, the reefs we've found in the last few days have 50-60% live coral in many areas, which is very rare indeed.
"They are pristine and teeming with life – pink octopus, batfish, squat lobsters and an array of deep-sea fish, sharks, and rays. These newly discovered reefs are potentially of global significance – a canary in the mine for other reefs globally – sites which we can monitor over time to see how pristine habitats evolve with our current climate crisis."
The findings were made possible by the Human Occupied Vehicle (HOV) Alvin submersible, which has had many upgrades since its inception in 1964 and now features high-definition imaging, plus better lighting and sensors.
The discovery is part of novel exploration on the Galápagos Deep 2023 expedition, which sees scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the University of Bristol, Boise State University and the University of Essex on board the research vessel Atlantis.
The Galapágos Marine Reserve (GMR), established in 1998 by the Ecuadorian government, covers 76,448 square miles (198,000 sq km) and is home to more than 3,000 known species in one of the world’s most significant areas of biodiversity. Remarkably, little of it has been subject to recent exploration, suggesting this expanse of deep-sea reef might not be on its own down there.
"Open waters cover over 95% of the known GMR, of which less than 5% have been explored through modern research expeditions,” said Stuart Banks, senior marine researcher at the Charles Darwin Foundation. “It’s very likely there are more reef structures across different depths waiting to be explored.
“The captivating thing about these reefs is that they are very old and essentially pristine, unlike those found in many other parts of the world's oceans. This gives us reference points to understand their importance for marine natural biodiversity heritage, connectivity with regional MPAs [Marine Protected Areas], as well as their role in providing goods and services such as carbon cycling and fisheries. It also helps us reconstruct past ocean environments to understand modern climate change.”
The discovery also highlights the importance of following through with the historic ocean treaty, in which nations have pledged to protect 30% of open waters by 2030.
“The richness of the yet explored depths of our ocean is another reason to strive towards achieving the commitments of the Global Ocean Alliance 30x30, aligning sustainable economic activities with conservation,” said Ecuador’s environment minister Jose Antonio Dávalos.
The discovery was made as part of the ongoing Galapagos Deep 2023 expedition.
See the stunning world-first footage in the video below, which shows live coral, fossilized coral and other marine life, captured by Alvin.
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