SCIENCE
28/08/2015 7:39 AM AEST | Updated 09/09/2015 6:51 PM AEST

New Underwater Discovery Gives The Great Barrier Reef A Run For Its Money

Wilsons Promontory in southeast Australia is a biodiversity hotspot.

Looks like one of the world's most famous natural wonders has some pretty impressive competition.

This week, researchers in Australia announced the discovery of a coral reef with such diverse and thriving marine life, it rivals that of the Great Barrier Reef.

Using a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), an underwater video camera and virtual reality goggles, researchers uncovered a stunning deep-sea world of hard and soft coral, colorful sponge gardens and massive coral fans -- all teeming with fish and marine invertebrates.

It took researchers three days to explore the never-before-seen habitats as part of an ongoing project to map out the sea floor within the Wilsons Promontory Marine National Park in southern Australia, a collaboration between Parks Victoria and Deakin University. In some areas, the ROV dove to depths of 330 feet.

"It's a wild and dynamic environment," Steffan Howe, Parks Victoria's marine science manager, told The Huffington Post.

The Wilsons Promontory National Park sits on a peninsula in Victoria, Australia's southernmost state, and is surrounded by the Bass Strait, which separates the mainland from the island of Tasmania. The peninsula used to form a land bridge to Tasmania, according to Howe. 

"Part of the area we are looking at was actually above sea level during the last ice age," he said. 

The research team uncovered stunning physical features in the marine park's deep waters, including boulders the size of houses, underwater sea caves and 100-foot high sand dunes shaped by the ocean currents. 

Physical features aside, what really makes the marine park's seafloor comparable to the Great Barrier Reef is the "spectacular invertebrate communities and abundant fish communities within these areas," Howe explained. 

"It looks like a biodiversity hotspot in Victoria, or even possibly nationally."

Credit: Parks Victoria

This site could be important for conservation efforts because it contains "amazing communities with really, really high biodiversity structures," Matt Edmunds, a marine biologist who steered the ROV during exploration of the area, told the local newspaper The Age.

"We discovered quite a few different community types that we didn't even think existed out there, in terms of sponge gardens and coral assemblages," Edmunds said, noting that they also found big cup or plate sponges that had never been observed in Victoria before.

Although the area is only 150 miles from Melbourne, scientists previously knew very little about the marine life in Wilsons Promontory, Howe told HuffPost. The area is remote and the weather is unpredictable, making it very difficult to access. 

With advanced technology like the robotic vehicle and underwater cameras, the habitats can be observed by humans, perhaps, for the first time ever.

"It’s fair to say that the majority of what we’re seeing here hasn’t been seen before," Howe said.

"We’re still analyzing a lot of the video footage, which will take some time," he added. "But given the diversity of the marine life we’ve seen, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some species that we haven’t seen before."

With the plethora of new information, researchers can better understand the region's biodiversity and better protect the marine reserve to "minimize impact and threats to these sort of communities," Howe said. But the scientists want to encourage recreational diving in the area.

Parks Victoria officials still need to collect and analyze more video to determine which areas might be safe for scuba divers, Howe said.

"We really hope that this will stimulate a lot of interest amongst divers," he said, "and give them some appetite to explore this area." 

Below, explore the newly discovered depths of Wilsons Promontory Marine National Park -- the Great Barrier Reef's newest competition.

Credit: Parks Victoria
Credit: Parks Victoria
A cup sponge and a sea tulip found on the sea floor of Wilsons Promontory Marine National Park.
Parks Victoria
Credit: Parks Victoria
Credit: Parks Victoria
Parks Victoria

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