coral The live Lophelia sample. It measures about 25 cm across. Photo: DFO

The Caribbean isn’t the only place to spot coral reefs.

Canadian researchers recently stumbled upon the first coral reef discovered off the coast of Greenland. The findings, published in the International Council for the Exploration at Sea's journal ICES Insight, describes how the reef was formed by cold-water corals and limestone skeletons located off Cape Desolation south of Ivittuut.

“It’s been known for many years that coral reefs have existed in Norway and Iceland and there is a lot of research on the Norwegian reefs, but not a great deal is known about Greenland,” Helle Jørgensbye, a doctoral student at the Technical University of Denmark who has been investigating the reef further, said in a statement. “The great Norwegian reefs are over 8,000 years old, which means that they probably started to grow after the ice disappeared after the last ice age. The Greenlandic reef is probably smaller, and we still don’t know how old it is.”

The reef was discovered in 2012 when a Canadian research vessel dropped equipment nearly 3,000 feet deep to collect water samples and it came back destroyed with pieces of coral branches attached.

"At first the researchers were swearing and cursing at the smashed equipment and were just about to throw the pieces of coral back into the sea, when luckily they realized what they were holding,"  Jørgensbye said.

The reef, which is located on a steep shelf with strong currents, has been difficult to observe.

"We got some photos eventually, although we almost lost them at the bottom of the ocean as the camera got stuck fast somewhere down in the depths. Luckily we managed to get it loose again and back up to the surface," she said.

While the discovery came as a surprise, it wasn't completely unexpected.

"There are coral reefs in the countries around Greenland and the effect of the Gulf Stream, which reaches the west coast, means that the sea temperature get up to about 4 degrees, which is warm enough for corals to thrive," Jørgensbye said. "In addition to the comparatively warm temperature, a coral reef also needs strong currents. Both these conditions can be found in southern Greenland."

The coral known as eye-coral, or Lophelia pertusa, was identified by Ole Tendal, from Denmark's Natural History Museum. The coral is known to grow in deep waters throughout the Atlantic Ocean. It's also known to house a variety of underwater species and is considered a biodiversity “hot spot” on the edge of the continental shelf.