Courtesy of DEEP SEARCH 2018 - BOEM, USGS, NOAA

The previously unconfirmed reef sits about 160 miles from Charleston's coast. 

By Kimberly Holland

If it feels like the news about coral reefs as of late is all bad—reef-killing sunscreens and rapidly-dying reef—this news will come as welcome relief: scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) just discovered an enormous series of coral reefs 160 miles off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina.

All combined, the reefs are nearly the length of Delaware, 85 linear miles long, sitting about a half mile below the water's surface.

"This finding changes where we thought corals could exist off the East Coast," deep-sea ecologist Erik Cordes, chief scientist of the project DEEP SEARCH which discovered and identified the reef, told The Washington Post. "This discovery is already changing our predictive models for coral. This will undoubtedly lead to new discoveries in the region once we can digest all of the information. That will take months to years."

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The U.S. East Coast is one of the most highly trafficked waterways in the world, and has been for more than six centuries. However, very little is known about what lives below the water's surface. That's why Cordes and other scientists launched DEEP SEARCH, a five-year discovery mission in offshore Virginia, Georgia, and North and South Carolina. They're looking for "deep-water coral reefs and mounds, massive submarine canyons, and cold-seep communities that rely on the energy from natural gas rather than sunlight to fuel productivity," the team said on their site.

Currently, scientists with DEEP SEARCH, NOAA, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and the U.S. Geological Survey are on a 15-day sea voyage aboard Atlantis, a research vessel. Each day, a team of scientists use the submersible Alvin to make sea floor excursions from Atlantis.

Last week, Cordes, Cathy McFadden, a professor of biology at Harvey Mudd College in California, and pilot Bruce Strickrott took Alvin down into water near the Stetson Banks region. Earlier research had discovered "mounds" that the team believed could be corals. 

After a nearly eight-hour session, the team returned with a serious of samples, including several types of living coral. The most dominant reef they found was ghost white Lophelia, or Lophelia pertusa.

The research team shared video of the dive from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. In it, you can see a time-lapse exhibit of the vast coral discovery.

Similar reef formations have been discovered off the coast of Florida and North Carolina. However, at their deepest, the reefs are just over 600 feet deep. That made the deep-sea discovery of these Lophelia reefs more surprising.