A sneezing sea sponge, believed to be the only one of its type in the world, has been discovered in Tauranga.

Contractors working at a site in the city stumbled upon the sponge — which resembles a cauliflower and is more than a metre in diameter.

Researchers couldn’t believe their eyes when diving off Beacon Wharf to confirm the discovery.

“No one believed him when he told us that this thing was over a metre in diameter,” Waikato University coastal science professor Chris Battershill told 1News.

Battershill said the sponge is also able to “sneeze”.

“If they get covered in sediment, they need to get rid of there if they can.

“So this particular group of species will sneeze, and it will just fluff off again.”

The sponge has been named Te Awanui, symbolising its connection to Tauranga moana and the community.

Researchers believe the sponge isn’t found anywhere else in the world.

Battershill said researchers are “finding some very exciting molecular structures which we know have strong bioactive properties”.

“Sponges are like filters for the sea. If you filled your car with water, a single sponge the size of a hand could remove all the bacteria in about an hour.”

While the population is flourishing, locals are being asked to leave the sponges alone as their bioactive properties could irritate the skin.

Tauranga City Council says it is committed to ensuring the rare sponges survive.

“We’re following our commitment to the blue sponge here and its preservation right across the waterfront,” city development and partnerships general manager Gareth Wallis said.

“We’re redeveloping the sea wall from where we are all the way to the city centre, and there’s 8000 tonnes of stones going in over the next six months.

“But uniquely, we’re also developing living sea wall pods that have been installed, which will bring marine life into the waterfront and encourage it to grow in that location.”

The sponge has already piqued the interest of the international community.

“There’s a very strong community interested in things like sponges,” Battershill said.

“I know it sounds crazy, but they now understand that there’s such a significant role for them in terms of the whole food chain, the food web. They create a lot of productivity on the sea bed so we need to keep those nursery grounds.”

Battershill said the discovery could also be useful beyond the realms of the sea “in the continued search for useful bioactive chemical drugs from the sea and there’s been a number from this country”.

“We’ve been part of a project, for instance, looking at cures or treatments of things like PSA, myrtle rust and we know that some of the solutions are going to be from marine organisms.”