• James Cook University scientist exploring a deep reef on the Great Barrier Reef. Photo credit: JCUJames Cook University scientist exploring a deep reef on the Great Barrier Reef. Photo credit: JCU

JCU researchers explore deep Great Barrier Reef

Scientists from James Cook University have been exploring previously unmapped sections of submerged reef – between 10 and 30 metres below the ocean’s surface. It’s the first time these coral colonies have been charted or documented.

Lead researcher Ed Roberts said that while scientists had carried out extensive research and documentation on the shallower reef, the deep reefs present an exciting opportunity        to further explore and understand the reef’s ecology.

He explained: "It's hard to see where they are, and we need to actually go out and go down and have a look at them. There are no easy places to anchor, so it's reasonably hard to get there, which has been the main reason we haven't looked at them yet." 

Dr Tom Bridges, a postdoctoral research at JCU said that the corals were so hidden they had not been counted as part of the reef.  "Coral reefs were mapped if they posed a hazard to shipping and navigation, but a lot of these reefs are deep enough that ships could pass over them, so they were never put on the maps as navigational hazards and we're still using the same maps.”

This means that the Great Barrier Reef could be up to twice the size than it is currently thought to be.  New technologies have helped the researchers to get to the reef areas and to understand the ecological communities in greater detail.  They have discovered that the deeper reefs are full of thriving and healthy coral colonies. 

Mr Roberts said they also found the coral had not been as affected by pressures like coral bleaching and ocean acidification, which were major threats to shallow reefs. "We look a lot at the shallow systems and the way they're affected by current pressures and it's not a terribly good story at the moment,”

"We found that the deeper we went, the less impact there was from storm waves from cyclones, which is a big impact on coral reefs."

It could mean that the scientists have found a coral refuge that was able to thrive despite environment pressures. "We might see this reservoir of corals which can actually rebuild our shallow water systems if they get knocked out," Mr Roberts said. 

"It's a very promising thing and it's something that holds a lot of hope for the future."

James Cook University is based in North Queensland, and offers a lot of exciting programmes and research opportunities for students interested in the marine environment.  Contact Study Options if you would like more information about the programmes that they offer.

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