Mass bleaching associated with unusually high sea temperatures represents one of the greatest threats to corals and coral reef ecosystems. Deeper reef areas are hypothesized as potential refugia, but the susceptibility of Scleractinian species over depth has not been quantified. During the most severe bleaching event on record, we found up to 83% of coral cover severely affected on Maldivian reefs at a depth of 3–5 m, but significantly reduced effects at 24–30 m. Analysis of 153 species' responses showed depth, shading and species identity had strong, significant effects on susceptibility. Overall, 73.3% of the shallow-reef assemblage had individuals at a depth of 24–30 m with reduced effects, potentially mitigating local extinction and providing a source of recruits for population recovery. Although susceptibility was phylogenetically constrained, species-level effects caused most lineages to contain some partially resistant species. Many genera showed wide variation between species, including Acropora, previously considered highly susceptible. Extinction risk estimates showed species and lineages of concern and those likely to dominate following repeated events. Our results show that deeper reef areas provide refuge for a large proportion of Scleractinian species during severe bleaching events and that the deepest occurring individuals of each population have the greatest potential to survive and drive reef recovery.