See the wonders of two newfound deep-sea coral reefs off the Galápagos

These thriving ecosystems exist up to 420 meters deep, so far untouched by humans

A photo of Cacho De Coral, a newly discovered coral reef off the coast of the Galápagos Islands. Shown are various corals, crustaceans, sea urchins and other marine wildlife that live on the reef.

Life on Cacho De Coral, a newly discovered pristine coral reef off the coast of the Galápagos Islands, is thriving. Shown are various corals, crustaceans, sea urchins and other marine wildlife that live on the reef.

Schmidt Ocean Institute

Four decades ago, warm waters from an El Niño event killed off nearly all the corals surrounding the Galápagos. Most coral reefs never recovered (SN: 1/9/15). But in recent months, researchers have discovered vast landscapes of thriving corals in deeper waters surrounding the equatorial islands.

In April, scientists documented the first pristine deep coral reef found in the region, dubbed Cacho De Coral, which sits atop the ridge of an underwater volcano and stretches about 250 meters. On October 26, a second team announced the discovery of an even bigger reef, this one more than 800 meters long, spanning the length of eight football fields.  

With coral reefs around the globe in peril due to climate change, the finds are a small piece of good news (SN: 8/9/23). These newfound reefs within the Galápagos Islands Marine Reserve have so far been protected from human influence and the direct impacts of warming waters.

A close up photo of brittle stars and shrimps in one of the newly discovered coral reefs west of the Galápagos’ Fernandina Island.
Brittle stars and shrimps are among the creatures living in and around a newly discovered reef west of the Galápagos’ Fernandina Island.Schmidt Ocean Institute

The newest reef was discovered when oceanographer Stuart Banks and colleagues set out on a 30-day expedition to explore parts of the ocean using a remotely operated robot named SuBastian. While in the Galápagos Islands Marine Reserve, which included a visit to Cacho De Coral, the team spotted a second reef.

“It’s like coming into your house and realizing that you’ve got a basement that you never knew was there,” says Banks, of the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island in the Galápagos. “And it’s full of really cool stuff.”

The newly identified reefs are in cold waters up to 420 meters below the surface, the Schmidt Ocean Institute, a nonprofit based in Palo Alto, Calif., that operates ocean research vessels, announced in a news release. Such a location probably helped corals living there remain pristine. Unlike corals that flourish in warm, shallow water with lots of sunlight to fuel symbiotic algae, deep-sea corals survive in darker parts of the ocean that don’t warm up as quickly under climate change (SN: 12/11/18).

It’s rare to find so much living coral in one spot, and scientists often need to get close to glimpse everything that’s hiding inside rocky reefs, Banks says. “Seeing these things for the first time is always a big ‘wow.’”

Using a remotely operated vehicle, researchers captured the marvels of pristine coral reefs found hundreds of meters below the surface of the ocean. Shown are various creatures the team observed on deep-sea reefs in the Galápagos Islands Marine Reserve, including one dubbed Cacho De Coral.

Erin I. Garcia de Jesus is a staff writer at Science News. She holds a Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Washington and a master’s in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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