A towering, blade-like column of coral has been discovered in the Great Barrier Reef, marking the first time in more than 100 years that a new, distinct structure has been found in the area near Australia.

Researchers with the Schmidt Ocean Institute stumbled upon the living tower while mapping the ocean floor with a robot on Oct. 20.

The structure they found is larger than the Empire State Building, measuring 1.5 kilometres wide at its base and rising 500 metres up from the ocean floor. The giant column of coral is 40 metres below the surface at its shallowest point, and would be tough to spot from a boat cruising over it.

They say it’s the first stand-alone coral reef to be found on the Great Barrier Reef since the 1800s.

“We are surprised and elated by what we have found,” expedition leader Dr. Robin Beaman said in a statement.

“To find a new half-a-kilometre tall reef in the offshore Cape York area of the well-recognized Great Barrier Reef shows how mysterious the world is just beyond our coastline,” added Dr. Jyotika Virmani, executive director of the Schmidt Ocean Institute.

Beaman and her team sent a robot called SuBastian down to explore the tower on Oct. 25, in a mission they live-streamed over YouTube.

Their digital map of the tower shows it rearing up from the ocean floor in a dramatic spike, with sides far steeper than the surrounding terrain.

The video shows the robo-sub picking over bits of coral on the ocean floor, then slowly ascending along the tower’s wall. It pauses many times along the way to pick samples and inspect bits the reef.

“To not only 3D-map the reef in detail, but also visually see this discovery with SuBastian is incredible,” Beaman said.

“It’s a big reef not to have known about,” added Tom Bridge, the expedition’s principal investigator, in an interview with The Guardian.

The Great Barrier Reef is a massive marine park spanning more than 344,000 square kilometres off Queensland, Australia. It’s home to more than 1,500 species of fish and hundreds of coral species, although studies have found that climate change is killing off parts of it by heating up the ocean.

Most of the reef hangs together in one main body, but there are a few distinct structures that stand apart, including this latest tower.

Wendy Schmidt, co-founder of the non-profit Schmidt Ocean Institute, hailed the discovery as another in a long line of achievements for the expedition.

“This unexpected discovery affirms that we continue to find unknown structures and new species in our ocean,” she said.

“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. New oceanscapes are opening to us, revealing the ecosystems and diverse life forms that share the planet with us.”

The expedition previously discovered a massive, jellyfish-like entity strung together into a giant tentacle in April.

The 12-month mission is slated to wrap up in November.

 

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