Underwater coral skyscraper taller than the Empire State Building found in Great Barrier Reef

Olivia Rudgard
·3-min read
The Falkor operating on the Great Barrier Reef - Schmidt Ocean Institute / SWNS 
The Falkor operating on the Great Barrier Reef - Schmidt Ocean Institute / SWNS

An underwater coral skyscraper taller than the Empire State Building has been discovered in the Great Barrier Reef.

Scientists from Australia's James Cook University said they were "surprised and elated" to find the 1,640ft structure, the first detached coral reef to be discovered in 120 years.

The team aboard the Schmidt Ocean Institute's Falkor ship made the discovery last week as part of efforts to map the reef sea floor.

On Monday the Institute, a non-profit founded by former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy, sent its underwater robot SuBastian to explore the reef, which is just under a mile wide at its base.

SuBastian, equipped with robotic arms and a camera, took coral from the reef for scientific inspection, livestreaming its exploration on YouTube.

Taller than the Shard and the Eiffel Tower, the structure stretches from the sea floor to reach its highest point 131 feet below the surface.

Footage shot by Falkor research vessel on its exploration of the reef - Schmidt Ocean Institute
Footage shot by Falkor research vessel on its exploration of the reef - Schmidt Ocean Institute

Starting at the base, the robot climbed to the apex of the coral mountain, capturing colourful colonies, unusual shells, shoals of fish and sharks on camera. 

It is one of a series of robotic dives planned by the institute to explore the oceans around Australia.

The robot captured fish and sharks on camera - Schmidt Ocean Institute / SWNS 
The robot captured fish and sharks on camera - Schmidt Ocean Institute / SWNS

In April its scientists discovered what is believed to be the longest-ever recorded sea creature, a 147-foot siphonophore.

The detached reef is one of several near the Cape York Peninsula in northern Australia which have been discovered since the late 19th century.

Dr Robin Beaman, who led the team, said: "To not only 3D map the reef in detail, but also visually see this discovery with SuBastian is incredible."

The robot is equipped with arms to take samples on its dive - Schmidt Ocean Institute
The robot is equipped with arms to take samples on its dive - Schmidt Ocean Institute

The team is expected to continue scoping the area until November 17, with the resulting data set to be shared on AusSeabed, which allows scientists to share their mapping discoveries.

Wendy Schmidt, co-founder of the Schmidt Ocean Institute, said: "This unexpected discovery affirms that we continue to find unknown structures and new species in our ocean.

"The state of our knowledge about what's in the ocean has long been so limited. Thanks to new technologies that work as our eyes, ears and hands in the deep ocean, we have the capacity to explore like never before."

 Dr Jyotika Virmani, executive director of Schmidt Ocean Institute, said: "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.

"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."

Katie Matthews, the chief scientist at conservation charity Oceana, said the finding was testament to the need for scientific exploration and the protection of our oceans. 

“Without scientific exploration, like what we are seeing livestreamed from the R/V Falkor, we might never have known about these deep reefs and the creatures that inhabit them. Imagine what else out there remains unknown – and with climate change possibly even lost before we find them," she said. 

“As often as not, when scientists get in the water, we find something new. A species in a place it had never been seen before. Mating behavior captured for the first time. Discovery of a new spawning ground. All the more reason we must be thoughtful and take precautions in how we manage and protect our oceans.”