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The East Coast of the United States is known for its miles of gorgeous beaches, but now something beneath the surface has been discovered that makes it even more of a jewel.

Thanks to 3D imagery, scientists have mapped the largest coral reef deep in the ocean, stretching hundreds of miles off the U.S. Atlantic coast.

The reef extends more than 300 miles from Florida to South Carolina, marking the total area nearly three times the size of Yellowstone National Park. Maps of the reef were recently published in the journal “Geomatics” by nonprofit Ocean Exploration Trust oceanographer Derek Sowers and other scientists, including several at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“It’s eye-opening — it’s breathtaking in scale,” said Stuart Sandin, a marine biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who was not involved in the study.

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Squat lobster in coral

A squat lobster perches on healthy Desmophyllum pertusum coral approximately 100 miles east of the Florida Atlantic coast in June 2019. (NOAA Ocean Exploration via AP)

The reef was also found so far below the surface, ranging from 655 to 3,280 feet, that sunlight does not penetrate it. Coral that far down must filter food particles out of the water for energy, rather than rely on photosynthesis. 

Coral reefs are important ecosystems as they protect coastlines from storms and erosion, the NOAA says on its website. They are also sources of food and new medicine. 

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Alfonsino fish in coral

An alfonsino fish swims above a thicket of Lophelia pertusa coral during a dive on a cold water coral mound in the center of the Blake Plateau off the southeastern coast of the U.S. in June 2019. (NOAA Ocean Exploration via AP)

“Over half a billion people depend on reefs for food, income, and protection,” the agency states, estimating that the net economic value of the world’s coral reefs is estimated to be nearly tens of billions of U.S. dollars annually. 

People enjoy fishing, diving and snorkeling on and need reefs, which adds hundreds of millions of dollars to local business, the NOAA says.  

dense populations of coral at the Blake Plateau

In January 2024, scientists announced they have mapped the largest coral reef deep in the ocean, stretching hundreds of miles off the U.S. coast. (NOAA Ocean Exploration via AP)

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Only about 75% of the world’s ocean floor has been mapped in high-resolution, so scientists say that even larger reefs could be waiting to be discovered.

The world’s largest tropical coral reef system, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, stretches for about 1,430 miles, according to The Associated Press. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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