Experts Uncover a Structure in the Ocean That’s Taller Than the Empire State Building

By: Lauren Wurth | Published: Oct 25, 2023

Dr. Robin Beaman and a team of scientists at the Schmidt Ocean Institute set sail on Australian Coast’s waters aboard a research ship named Falkor. Their mission was simple — to uncover more of the ocean’s mysteries.

So, off they went on their great adventure, aided by advanced technology to observe the enormous underwater area below their ship. But while their goal was simple, the discovery wasn’t. They struck something much larger than they had ever anticipated.

Something Like We've Never Seen Before

Dr. Robin Beaman’s instruments caught something about 1,640 feet high underneath the craft. Since this is pretty too large to imagine, we’d compare it with our beloved and gigantic Empire State Building in New York.


The Empire State Building, at about 1,454 feet is around 200 feet shorter than this amazing discovery. It was unlike anything anyone has seen in more than 120 years.


A Pattern of Discoveries

Is this enormous structure the only major discovery by the Schmidt Ocean Institute in recent times? Certainly not! The Falkor ship scientists have made other breakthroughs over the previous year.


Also, this recently discovered detached reef joins the seven other tall detached reefs in the region that have been identified and surveyed since the late 1800s. This includes the reef at Raine Island, which is the most significant green sea turtle nesting site in the world.

An Underwater Mapping Led to Something More

The team led by Dr. Robin Beaman of James Cook University was carrying out underwater mapping of the northern Great Barrier Reef seafloor when they discovered this large coral reef. They then dived to explore this reef with SuBastian, Schmidt Ocean Institute’s underwater robot. 


The blade-like reef has a 1.5km-wide base with its most shallow depth as 40m beneath the surface of the sea. It was highly instrumental in uncovering a structure that beat their expectations. 

The Massive Coral Reef

The coral reef is pretty close to the Great Barrier Reef. So technically, it’s just a small part of it, right? Wrong! This newly discovered coral reef is the first of its kind in over 100 years and stands apart from the Great Barrier Reef.


Dr. Virmani, Schmidt Ocean Institute’s executive director, expressed her gratitude to the technologies in this research for unveiling exciting secrets like this. 

New Species in our Ocean

From the arctic to the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Pacific, Southern Pacific, Indian, and Southern Oceans, we’ve only touched the surface when it comes to discovering the secrets of these mysterious water bodies. That’s especially when we compare it to our level of advancements and discoveries on land and air.

According to  Schmidt Ocean Institute, “In August, scientists discovered five undescribed species of black coral and sponges and recorded Australia’s first observation of rare scorpionfish in the Coral Sea and Great Barrier Reef Marine Parks. And the year started with the discovery in February of deep-sea coral gardens and graveyards in Bremer Canyon Marine Park.”


Exploring the Ocean Depths

More than ever before, there’s the need to take a deep dive into the ocean to discover the secrets beneath. Fortunately, we’ve got innovative technologies like the Falkor to go the length and breath with us. With the Falkor, researchers were able to do the hard jobs by launching underwater robots deep inside. We can do more with more advanced technologies.

The importance of developing more rugged machines for exploring the deepest parts of the sea cannot be overemphasized. Only the sturdiest of devices can handle the weight of the water volume over them and the extremely cold/dark seafloor conditions without crushing.


Introducing the Schmidts and Schmidt Ocean Institute

There’s no talking about the advancements in marine research without acknowledging the efforts of Eric and Wendy Schmidt, founders of the non-profit operating foundation, Schmidt Ocean Institute. 

According to the Institute, it aims to “advance the frontiers of global marine research by providing state-of-the-art operational, technological, and informational support to the pioneering ocean science and technology development projects at sea.” There’s no denying that they have done an amazing job so far. 


Our Friends from Below the Sea

After Dr. Breaman and his team made the breakthrough discovery, Wendy Schmidt made a statement pondering the implications of these innovative technologies on our understanding of the water bodies.

In her words, “The state of our knowledge about what’s in the ocean has long been so limited. Thanks to new technologies that work as our eyes, ears, and hands in the deep ocean, we can explore like never before. New oceanscapes are opening to us, revealing the ecosystems and diverse life forms that share the planet with us.”


Matters Arising

Given the world’s intense fight against climate change, there’s no better time to focus on the ocean’s ecosystem than right now. Oceans are the world’s greatest ally against climate change. That’s because oceans play an all-important role as the world’s primary heat sink.

According to the World Bank, “they absorb 90% of the excess heat caused by climate change. Oceans are also a very efficient carbon sink, absorbing 23% of human-caused CO2 emissions.”


The Ocean is the Real Deal

As of March 2020, a report, “Statement on the State of the Global Climate in 2019” was published by the World Meteorological Office. This study set aside a full section to discuss the ocean after stating that 2019 was the second-hottest year on record.

This shows how important it is that we put ample effort into understanding the ocean and its ecosystems, especially as it concerns climate change.


2019—The Uncharacteristically Warm Year

According to the report, the temperature for 2019 was unusually high in the world’s oceans as climate change is severely straining them.

A press release revealed that the ocean experienced almost 2 months of unusually warm temperatures in 2019. Most parts of the ocean had more strong heat waves than moderate. As if that wasn’t enough, large areas of the north-east Pacific experienced severe heat waves.


Rising Temperatures = Unwelcome Results

Increasing temperatures are serious causes of concern because of how they negatively impact the earth. According to the National Resources Defence Council (NRDC), “Higher temperatures are worsening many types of disasters, including storms, heat waves, floods, and droughts. A warmer climate creates an atmosphere that can collect, retain, and unleash more water, changing weather patterns in such a way that wet areas become wetter and dry areas drier.”

Furthermore, the rising temperatures result in significant changes in the ocean ecosystems which adversely affect aquatic organisms.


Climate Change and its Effects

We didn’t experience the immediate effects of climate change so much from 2009 to 2018 because the oceans absorbed about ¼ of the global annual carbon dioxide emissions in that period. Unfortunately, this “superhero” action led to devastating consequences for our waters by increasing their acid levels.

This resulted in a disturbance in the ecosystem, harming several sea habitats and their indwelling organisms.


Extreme, Irreversible Risks to Coral Reefs

The more we study the oceans, the more we realize that the oxygen levels within are constantly dropping. That’s worrisome for marine organisms and their habitats. It destroys the ecosystem by stressing aquatic life, reducing and hurting the growth/reproduction of aquatic animals. 

Low oxygen levels also push fish into shallower waters. Coral reefs will continue experiencing irreversible damage for these reasons.


The Vital Rainforests of the Sea

Coral reefs, nicknamed “the rainforest of the sea,” are among the world’s most diverse ecosystems. They comprise tiny living organisms (Coral polyps), that attach to the seafloor and become hard when they die. 

Many marine plants flourish because Coral reefs act as sunscreens to protect them. That is, they release several chemicals that serve as barriers to protect algae from the sun’s harmful effects.


Synergist Partnerships

Algae and coral reefs have a mutually-beneficial relationship. Remember that coral reefs protect algae from the sun’s harmful effects. Algae return the favor by breathing out oxygen as they photosynthesize to produce their food. This creates an oxygenated environment for coral reefs to thrive, returning the favor.

As such, it’s correct to say that corals owe their beautiful corals to algae for the important roles they play in making them thrive.


Increasing Temperatures and Coral Bleaching

Since algae and coral reefs share a symbiotic relationship, any harm to one hurts the other. That’s why an increase in the ocean’s temperature that adversely affects algae also damages coral.

Global warming forces corals to eject the algae within their tissues, turning them white in a process called coral bleaching. Although bleached corals are still alive, they become more stressed and at higher risk of losing their lives.


Inevitable Changes

Since corals can go through bleaching without giving up, they also have a chance of survival under the right conditions. For example, as temperatures become cooler, their possibility of bouncing back to good health and recovering their magnificent multi-colored forms significantly increases. 

However, if the warm temperatures remain constant or increase, the outlook becomes unpleasant as hot waters may cause large-scale mortality.


Human Interference

Global warming isn’t the only culprit to watch out for when it comes to damage to the coral reef. Besides the increasing temperatures, humans also have a hand in the decline of coral reefs.  

For example, large-scale fishing takes too many fish out of the water. This creates an imbalance that hurts aquatic life. Ocean dumping is another way humans pollute and disturb aquatic life.


Why Coral Reefs are Indispensable

Dr. Erika Woolsey, an ecologist, and specialist in coral reefs, once presented on the subject in 2017. She emphasized the importance of coral reefs, stating that they are a source of sustenance for many people all over the world.

In her words, “Coral reefs… provide food and livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people around the world, they protect shorelines from erosion, and they contain compounds that are used to treat human ailments… Even though they cover less than 1 percent of the sea floor, they harbor about a quarter of all marine biodiversity.”


The Great Barrier Reef of Australia

The Great Barrier Reef of Australia is one of the most famous coral reefs in the world. Unfortunately, just like every other reef, the Great Barrier Reef of Australia faces numerous risks, chief among which is the increasing ocean temperatures.

This reef, known for its thousands of single reefs, has suffered three major bleaching events since 2015. As expected, this has negatively affected its sustainability.


A Whole New World of Discovery

The Great Barrier Reef of Australia can be described as a well of discoveries. Located off the country’s northeastern shores, this reef is very vast, spanning nearly 1,430 miles along Australia’s coastline.

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is home to the world’s largest coral reef collection and contains more than 9,000 species. We believe that there are way more undiscovered species in this reef.


Scientific and Economic Value

The Great Barrier Reef of Australia has significant scientific value, especially as a habitat for endangered species like the dugong (commonly known as the “sea cow”) and huge green turtles. 

This reef is also a huge economic interest with its structure attracting millions of people annually. Of course, this also translates to lots of money for the people living there.


The Beauty of Biodiversity

Just like the earth comprises several animal species and human races, the Great Barrier Reef of Australia is bursting with several aquatic creatures of various sizes and shapes. It’s home to turtles, dolphins, crocodiles, sharks, and many more well-known animals. This reef also houses various unpopular small organisms, sea snakes, and worm species.

Besides its scientific, environmental, and economic significance, it’s beautiful noticing how these very different species live and interact with each other.


More Focus on Australia's Sea Waters

It’s vital to conduct extensive research on Australia’s marine ecosystem due to its importance and the increasing risks it faces. Fortunately, Schmidt Ocean Institute is blazing the trail and motivating other research centers to follow.

Schmidt Ocean Institute continuously carries out studies on the Great Barrier Reef. It’s also concerned with Australia’s sea waters in general, undergoing broader studies regularly.


The World's Largest Animal in Australia's Waters

There’s way more to Australia’s Sea Waters than the structure taller than the Empire State Building. For example, in 2020, Schmidt Ocean Institute led a journey into the deep sea which led to the discovery of 30 new marine species. One of the most outstanding of those discoveries is a large siphonophore.

The siphonophore, the longest ever recorded, was found beneath the Western Australian coastline and is 150 feet (46 meters) long.


More Juice on the Incredible Superorganism

The discovered siphonophore, an Apolemia, is almost times 6 of a Routemaster double-decker bus. Generally, siphonophores are organism colonies (zooids) that clone and attach in chain-like forms. 

Before this discovery, siphonophores were known to only grow to about 130 feet (40m) long. Nicknamed “deadly beauties,” these creatures play an important role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem as vital predators.


Blown Away!

The magnitude of the significant findings so far in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is mind-blowing. According to Dr. Nerida Wilson, a scientist on one of the research voyages, “we suspected these deep-sea areas would be diverse, but we have been blown away by the significance of what we have seen.”

Dr. Nerida Wilson was on the team that discovered exciting creatures like the Dana octopus squid and long-tailed sea cucumber.


Life Goes Round and Round

According to Wendy Schmidt, there’s so much more to discover about the ocean and how well it connects with land life. 

In her words, “There is so much we don’t know about the deep sea, and there are countless species never before seen. Our planet is deeply interconnected – what happens in the deep sea impacts life on land, and vice versa. This research is vital to advance our understanding of that connection – and the importance of protecting these fragile ecosystems.”


A Toast to More!

While we’ve already discovered numerous exciting new species in the seven oceans, the possibility of finding much more is thrilling.  With more research going on in Australia’s new coral reef, we can’t wait for more unbelievable discoveries from that side.

We say kudos to Schmidt Ocean Institute for the amazing work so far and call on more research investments from stakeholders. Cheers to more exploration and groundbreaking discoveries.