Coral 'tower' taller than the Empire State Building discovered off Australian coast

The detached reef stands taller than the Empire State Building
The reef extends more than 1,640 feet (500 meters) below the ocean surface. (Image credit: Schmidt Ocean Institute)

An underwater research vessel has stumbled upon a gargantuan coral reef, standing like a monolithic tower off the coast of northern Australia.

According to scientists at the Schmidt Ocean Institute, who are conducting a yearlong expedition of the ocean around Australia, this newly discovered reef stands more than 1,640 feet (500 meters) high from base to tip, making it taller than the Empire State Building.

The newly discovered reef is part of the Great Barrier Reef — the single longest coral reef in the world, spanning more than 1,400 miles (2,300 km) along the northeastern coast of Australia. This new branch of the massive underwater structure stands freely from the rest of the reef, making it the first detached coral reef discovered in the area in 120 years, the researchers said.

"To find a new half-a-kilometer tall reef in … the well-recognized Great Barrier Reef shows how mysterious the world is just beyond our coastline," Jyotika Virmani, executive director of Schmidt Ocean Institute, said in a statement.

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Scientists aboard the research vessel Falkor discovered the new reef on Oct. 20 while constructing a 3D map of the ocean floor. The lonely tower of coral, which the team described as "blade-like," measures 1 mile (1.5 km) wide at its base, before rising up to its peak, roughly 130 feet (40 m) below the sea's surface. Seven other detached towers like this have been previously discovered along the reef, the researchers said.

Using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), the team explored the new reef's surface, revealing a rainbow menagerie of corals and underwater fauna. (If you want to see some highlights, check out the footage from the Institute's 3-hour livestream on YouTube).

Such biodiversity is typical of the Great Barrier Reef, which supports more than 1,500 species of fish and hundreds of different types of coral. However, many of those species are at risk of losing their homes to climate change, which has contributed to the loss of half of the Great barrier Reef's corals since 1995, a study published Oct. 14 in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B found

The Schmidt Institute will continue its exploration of the northern reef until Nov. 17. In addition to finding this massive tower, institute researchers also discovered the "single longest animal ever" in April (actually a 150-foot-long — 45 m — chain of smaller creatures called zooids), a squid never filmed alive before and a mysterious graveyard of coral in March. 

Originally published on Live Science.

Brandon Specktor

Brandon is the space/physics editor at Live Science. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Reader's Digest,, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and other outlets. He holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona, with minors in journalism and media arts. He enjoys writing most about space, geoscience and the mysteries of the universe.