A coral and sponge reef has quietly been thriving under the muddy waters at the mouth of Amazon river in South America.

The reef’s existence was first revealed in April 2016, when photographs were published of the flourishing ecosystem that is home to at least 60 species of sponges, 73 species of fish, spiny lobsters and stars. The discovery left scientists and environmentalists stunned – it defied old theories that corals need clear water and sunlight to thrive. It also left them afraid – oil companies such as Total and BP are already planning to explore the area for potential oil drilling.


Covering nearly 9,500 square kilometres, the Amazon Reef stretches between the boundaries of the territorial waters of French Guiana to Brazil’s Maranhão state, an area that has been opened by the Brazilian government for oil exploration.

To protect this ecosystem from being lost, Greenpeace has launched a signature campaign called “Defend the Amazon Reef”. The petition thus far has found the support of a million people, including of 6,000 Indians.

Reefs at the mouth of the Amazon river. Courtesy: Greenpeace

“This project, like every other oil drilling expedition, runs an inevitable risk of oil spills,” said Ravi Chellam, executive director, Greenpeace India. “Oil spills are not disasters that clear up quickly. Marine mammal populations are severely impacted for several decades and a spill reaching the mangroves is impossible to clear. These disasters weaken our maritime ecosystems, reduce wildlife populations, drag down tourism, and severely affect the fishing industries.”

Reefs at the mouth of the Amazon river. Courtesy: Greenpeace

An official report on the discovery of the reef was published in 2016. “We found a reef where the textbooks said there shouldn’t be one. We think it is unique,” said oceanographer Fabiano Thompson, a member of the discovery team, in the Guardian. The explorers had discovered a colourful and vibrant ecosystem of pink, purple and glowing green corals, fish of multiple hues, giant sea sponges, crabs, and manta rays gliding and patrolling the waters. “It is a megabiome, a major ecological community of plants and animals with its own endemic species. This makes everything we published out of date. We are rewriting the textbooks,” said Thompson.

White sea urchins and rhodolites. White urchins often use fragments of other organisms to hide and to defend themselves from predators. Courtesy: Greenpeace

According to Chellam, the reef serves as a natural carbon sink – a natural environment which absorbs carbon dioxide. “It is also surrounded by the largest mangrove stretch in the world, which again is another massive natural carbon sink,” he said. “Any threat to the reef will directly impair the earth’s ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere [carbon sequestration]. International oil companies plan to drill an estimated 15 to 20 billion barrels of oil from the surrounding area, which, once up for consumption, will further adversely affect efforts to mitigate climate change.”

A manta ray. Courtesy: Greenpeace

So far, only 5% of the miraculous reef has been documented. But already, explorations have revealed that it is home to at least three new species of fish and a large number of critically endangered fish.

A star fish. Courtesy: Greenpeace