Scientists have recently discovered a thriving deep-water coral reef that may give the Great Barrier Reef a run for its money in size and biodiversity. Because of their depths, the reefs within the Wilsons Promontory Marine National Park off the southeast Australian province of Victoria have been explored very little. With new technology, scientists are able to explore these areas a little closer.

The waters off of Victoria boast some of the highest diversity, much of it endemic. According to Steffan Howe, the marine science manager for Parks Victoria, there are over 12,000 species of marine plants and animals, with about 95% of those species not occurring anywhere else in the world. Howe says up until now, scientists have had a good understanding of the marine life in the shallow parts of Wilsons Promontory Marine National Park (“Park” hereafter), but not so much in the deeper areas.

An example of the vibrant colors and abundant marine life discovered at depth. Photo courtesy of Parks Victoria.

An example of the vibrant colors and abundant marine life discovered at depth. Photo courtesy of Parks Victoria.

A deep sea floor mapping project sparked curiosity: what lives there?

The underwater robot that was used to capture breathtaking videos of the deep-water reefs. Photo courtesy of Australia Marine Ecology.

The underwater robot that was used to capture breathtaking videos of the deep-water reefs. Photo courtesy of Australia Marine Ecology.

To better understand marine life far below the surface, the Park partnered with Deakin University to conduct SONAR mapping of the ocean floor.

These surveys revealed large and impressive underwater structures deep beneath the surface. For example, a massive underwater dune system includes one that is 100 feet high by more than a mile long! But what is living around these unique features?

To find out, the Park contracted a research organization called Australia Marine Ecology to use innovative technology. The team, led by Dr. Matt Edmunds, deployed a remote-controlled underwater vehicle to collect video of known areas. The videos were matched with the SONAR mapping data to determine what marine life was associated with which habitat types. The vehicle travelled to depths as much as 95 meters (311 feet), to areas never before seen.

The deep reefs are teeming with life, including large sea fans, sea whips, beautiful sponges, and plentiful fish. Photo courtesy of Parks Victoria.

The deep reefs are teeming with life, including large sea fans, sea whips, beautiful sponges, and plentiful fish. Photo courtesy of Parks Victoria.

The videos show a reef that is teeming with life.

Expansive areas of colorful sponges, large fish assemblages, huge coral fans, sea whips, and plenty of other magnificent coral assemblages are abound. Sea weeds, kelps, sea stars, and bryozoans; the diversity is endless! It seems the characteristics of this amazing reef, particularly the vibrant colors, are rivaled only by the famous Great Barrier Reef.

Howe explains that many of the large sponge species observed have never been seen in Victoria before, and these sponge gardens are some of the most exciting discoveries of the project. According to Dr. Edmunds, the diversity of the sponge gardens per square meter may be higher than what is typically seen on any other reef.

What makes this such a hotspot for coral reef diversity? That will surely be the topic of much research to come. Dr. Edmunds suggests that the unique location of the reef could be a factor, with the Bass Strait currents “squeezing by” and interacting with oceanic swells, leaving the area largely wild and undisturbed.

What can be expected as a result of these discoveries?

The new information on the incredible deep reefs will inform the Park on management strategies and priorities in the future. Some of the fish observed are rare species requiring conservation efforts, such as the Australian barracuda (Sphyraena novaehollandiae) and Longsnout Boarfish (Pentaceropsis recurvirostris). In addition, Howe hopes that these videos will spark interest in pride in Victorians for the beautiful reefs that exist so close to home.

 

Sources

Casey, Michael. “Great Barrier Reef may have a colorful rival”. CBS News. Web. http://goo.gl/GpI3SO

Gray, Darren. “Beauty of Wilsons Promontory Marine National Park rivals the Great Barrier Reef”. The Age Victoria. Web. http://goo.gl/ge0q6P