Scientists have discovered the river reef is far bigger, and more important, than first thought – a biodiversity hotspot on a par with the Great Barrier Reef. Now they face a race to protect it from big oil.
There is a flickering, bright glimmer of sky as the two-person submarine descends beneath the muddy equatorial waters to a place no human has ever seen – a vast, complex coral reef at the mouth of the world’s greatest river.

Thirty metres under the murky plume of the sediment-heavy Amazon, the sub enters a darker, richer world. A school of curious remora fish approaches the two-tonne machine. Crabs and starfish loom in its eerie lights. A metre-long amberjack swims past, then a two-metre ray.

At a depth of 80 metres, the pilot pauses to record large mounds of coral covered in rainbow-coloured pygmy angelfish, wrasses and parrotfish. There are sponges 30ft long.

At 120 metres the sub settles on the nearly level ocean floor in a field of soft coral, sea whips and fans. The pilot manoeuvres its remote cameras to within inches of the reef wall. It consists mainly of sponges and colourful rhodolith beds – masses of coral-like red algae – which are formed by chemical synthesis and thrive in the low light.

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Oil companies planning to drill near a vast coral reef at the mouth of the Amazon river have calculated that the unique ecosystem has a 30% chance of being affected in the event of an oil spill.

'We are rewriting the textbooks': first dives to Amazon coral reef stun scientists
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The unique reef system astonished marine biologists when its existence was widely revealed last year, and is believed it could be the home for dozens of previously unknown species. But activists warn that an oil spill could irreparably damage the 1,000 kilometre-long ecosystem before scientists have even had a chance to study it.

“It’s unlike any other reef that we know about,” said Sara Ayech, an oil campaigner at the London offices of Greenpeace. “If the companies drill there’s a risk of an oil spill and if an oil spill hits the reef, then we could see parts of it destroyed before we even document them.”

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