Two pristine coral reefs have been discovered deep underwater off the Galápagos Islands, surprising Schmidt Ocean Institute scientists piloting the remote-operated vehicle (ROV) SuBastian. The discovery was made during an expedition that had set out to study underwater cliff ecosystems and came away with two new coral reefs and some previously uncharted sea mounts to boot.
The larger of the two coral reefs is roughly the size of eight football fields at 800 meters (0.5 miles) long, while the other is a modest 250 meters (0.2 miles). Believed to have been around for thousands of years, they’re home to a very healthy ecosystem made up of a rich diversity of stony coral species that sit between 370 and 420 meters (0.22 and 0.2 miles) below the surface.
“We are thrilled our mapping data are able to improve our understanding of reef ecosystems in the Galápagos,” said expedition lead Dr Katleen Robert of the Fisheries and Marine Institute of Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador in a release emailed to IFLScience.
“The interdisciplinary science team is excited that the data collected during this expedition will contribute to growing knowledge on the Galápagos National Marine Reserve and contribute to the management of the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor.”
It’s hoped the discovery of these reefs within the biologically important Galápagos Marine Reserve can help scientists to better understand the role that deep-sea habitats play in maintaining the health of the ocean. Something that’s hard to gauge when we don’t know what’s down there.
As well as exploring deep water ecosystems, the expedition set out to create high-resolution maps of the environment using laser scanning technology. And by high resolution, they aren’t messing around. The images captured were accurate down to 2 millimeters (0.08 inches), enabling scientists to identify animals living on the seafloor – something that’s not been possible with lower-quality mapping technologies.
This high-resolution mapping technology was taken for a spin on two uncharted seamounts that were uncovered during the expedition, meaning the first images of them are incredibly detailed. Scientists had a sneaking suspicion there may be seamounts here based on satellite data, but only now have they been able to confirm their existence.
"This information is not only valuable from a scientific perspective, but it also provides a solid foundation for decision-making that effectively protects these ecosystems, safeguarding the biological diversity they harbor and ensuring their resilience in a constantly changing environment,” added Danny Rueda Córdova, director of the Galápagos National Park Directorate.
“The geological dynamics of the region play a fundamental role in the deep-sea ecosystems. Research and mapping are essential tools to ensure that the Galápagos continue to be an iconic example of the beauty and importance of nature."