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‘Like a work of art’: rare stretch of pristine coral reef discovered off Tahiti | Coral

A huge coral reef has been discovered off the coast of Tahiti in the Pacific's 'twilight zone', giving hope that more pristine ecosystems are waiting to be discovered at unexplored depths.

The reef, which stretches along the seabed for almost 2 miles, is covered with rose-shaped corals, and is one of the largest discoveries of this kind at more than 30 meters depth, where sunlight levels are much lower.

Researchers for the Unesco-led mission in French Polynesia said the reef discovered in November did not appear to have been exposed to bleaching incidents that had damaged neighboring reefs in shallow water in 2019. During dives totaling 200 hours, scientists able to see the coral spawning, where some span 2 meters.

"It was magical to see giant, beautiful rose corals stretching as far as the eye can see," said Alexis Rosenfeld, a French underwater photographer who was part of the team of international divers who made the discovery. "It was like a work of art."

Researchers said several reefs were likely waiting to be discovered at these depths following improvements in diving technology that had previously hampered exploration.

"To date, we know the moon's surface better than the deep sea. Only 20% of the entire seabed has been mapped," said Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director - General.

Most of the world's known coral reefs are at depths of 25 meters and above, where many are at risk of collapsing while the world's oceans continue to warm. In September, a study found that coral reef cover had halved since the 1950s due to global warming, overfishing, pollution and habitat destruction.

Prof. Murray Roberts, a marine scientist at the University of Edinburgh, told the BBC that the discovery underscored the need to map similar reefs to ensure they can be protected in the future.

"We still associate corals with the lowest tropical gardens, but here we find a huge unprecedented coral reef system.

"As shallow water heats up faster than deeper water, we may find that these deeper reef systems are havens for corals in the future. We need to get out there to map these particular places," he said.

Further dives are planned in the coming months off the coast of Tahiti to continue investigations around the reef.

Find more coverage for age of extinction here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for all the latest news and features

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