A team of Australian explorers have discovered a previously unknown coral reef in the Gulf of Carpentaria near Queensland.
Dr Peter Harris, the chief scientist of the Geoscience Australia expedition, says the living reef was located near Mornington Island in the gulf during a month-long mapping expedition which took them from Cairns to Darwin.
"We were absolutely stunned when we lowered a video camera down there and saw living hard corals," said Harris. "We had thought it was just a relic from lower sea levels." Harris says the age of the reef is yet to be determined, but the discovery reveals how little is known about some of Australia’s coastline.
"I think it’s an amazing thing to think that in 2003 we can go out into the marine environment and discover 100 square-kilometres of coral reef that we didn’t know existed," he said.
"I think Australia has so much more opportunities for this kind of exploration, that we don’t have enough… resources and people to go out and do this kind of work.
"I think if this was the Caribbean or Mediterranean, it would have been mapped and studied a hundred times by now." Harris added that hard coral reefs are not usually found in the north because the water is too warm.
"Hard corals just don’t seem to do well up here, but in one location at least that doesn’t seem to be the case. We have a large hard coral reef, just like the Great Barrier Reef, here in the Gulf of Carpentaria."
"We also discovered an enormous living coral reef in the middle of the gulf that supported a wide array of sea life including soft sponges, corals and shellfish, Harris added.
The reef was just discovered because most of it is over 30 meters deep in warmer waters and the area where it is located is quite remote. The nearest population center is the town of Karumba, 250km to the southeast.
Experts speculate that the reef formed some 40,000 to 80,000 years ago. At that time it is believed that sea levels were 30 meters lower than they are today. The fresh coral found by the expedition team could be much younger… grown within the past 1,000 years.
The discovery of hard coral in the area is quite a shock. Conventional scientific theory says that coral reefs cannot exist in Australia’s warm, muddy coastal waters. This reef is in water west of the Great Barrier Reef’s northern limits in the Torres Strait.
It had been theorized that the gulf area was too laden with sediment for reefs to exist there. The Geoscience Australia expedition originally set out to investigate the movements of sediment in its waters making this discovery even more amazing. "I’m very curious to see if this sort of thing is not more widespread in the area," Harris said.
Source: Australian Broadcasting Co; Guardian UK.