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.
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.’”