Coral reefs are some of the greatest expressions of ocean life and most dynamic ecosystems on our planet. They are also extremely important to the biodiversity of the ocean. They provide shelter and protection for many species of aquatic creatures. Coral helps to regulate the amount of carbon dioxide in the water and coral reefs serve as a barrier, protecting coasts from strong currents. Furthermore, coral reefs are natural wonders that provide truly bewildering beauty. They swarm with exotic fish, crustaceans and other creatures of the sea, as well as boldly display psychedelic colors that tantalize the visual senses.
But all is not well in the world of coral reefs in our oceans. In fact, at the rate they are being destroyed by global warming, pollution and over-fishing, it seems they are doomed. Within just a few decades, tropical reefs that beam with life could be reduced to trash-laden rubble. Are we willing to allow that to happen to something that is so crucial to our planet and serves such a dynamic purpose?
It is estimated that coral reefs cover nearly 110,000 square miles of the world’s oceans. The Indo-Pacific region is home to over 90 percent of the world’s reefs.
Coral reefs are truly the rainforests of the ocean. Corals are actually marine animals in the same family as jellyfish. Most coral host algae, with which they have a symbiotic relationship. Algae provide the coral with its beautiful color and they absorb sunlight to perform photosynthesis, providing the coral with oxygen. The algae’s requirement for sunlight is the reason certain types of corals are found in shallow waters, which are penetrated by the sun’s rays. Corals have rigid structures and elaborate “branches” that can extend for hundreds of miles. They have the best chance for survival in warm, clean and clear tropical waters. Reefs are found along coastlines in the tropics, near volcanic and other isolated islands in nearly 100 countries.
There are three major types of reefs: fringing reefs, barrier reefs and atoll reefs. Fringe reefs grow close to the coast in shallow waters. Barrier reefs are large and separated from land by a lagoon. Atoll reefs are ring-shaped and grow near underwater islands and volcanoes. All have their own rhythms, affected both by the tide and by the time of day or night. The wide-ranging assortments of creatures that are attracted to the reef at any given time reflect the reef’s dynamics. Fish and birds often hunt in shallow parts of the reef where coral can trap pockets of water and in turn, give feeding opportunities. Grey reef sharks and white reef sharks can be seen trolling the reefs at night, where they search for sardines and eels that are attracted to the coral algae.
Coral reefs are not only important for the marine habitats they form, but also for recreation and tourism. In addition, they have been being studied for their health benefits to humans. In recent years, they have been touted as a great reserve of untapped pharmaceutical resources. Unfortunately, the coral reefs throughout much of the world are in great danger.
If you want hard evidence that the biodiversity of our planet is drastically eroding, look no further than your nearest coral reef.
For millions of years, the destruction of coral reefs by grazing fish and crashing waves has been balanced out by nature’s ability to rebuild. But in the last decades, adverse human impact has shifted the balance. Polluted rivers now spill into the sea, bringing sediment and sewage in which sensitive marine life cannot survive. Over-fishing reduces fish, sharks and other commonly consumed sea creatures to unsustainably low levels. Add to that the devastating effects of global warming and one can see how the problem is exponentially magnified. Coral reefs can survive only within a narrow range of temperatures. When algae interact with increased temperatures, it produces toxic compounds that destroy coral by starving them of nutrients. Pollution, over-fishing and global warming have damaged some of the biggest and most diverse reefs in the world. The Great Barrier Reef has lost an untold number of species of fish. The Coral Triangle in the Indonesian archipelago has suffered irreversible ecological damage. Most of the reefs in the Caribbean are now flatter and more uniform – a certain indication of erosion and disease. Many experts in the field warn that by the middle of this century, coral reefs will be unrecognizable in comparison to how they appear now. When they disintegrate, they will in turn cause the extinction of nearly half of the biodiversity of the marine world. When reefs fail, expect other marine ecosystems to fail, as well.
The consensus among many scientists throughout the world seems to be that the future of coral reefs is an absolute nightmare. Clearly, pessimism could not be any higher.
Lack of Commitment
There was a time not long ago when environmentalists were brimming with optimism, hopeful that coral reefs could be saved with their sustained efforts and the cooperation of governments worldwide. But many have now come to realize the stark reality of the situation – that there is a severe lack of commitment on the part of government agencies to not only protect coral reefs, but to create policies that will reduce carbon emissions and pollution.
Like many other natural wonders of our planet, those who dream to see coral reefs while they are still at least partially intact should not wait. Both snorkeling and diving are excellent ways to put you right in the action and see all that reefs have to offer. In fact, you can dive one of Africa’s greatest reefs while visiting Zanzibar, after your Kilimanjaro Climb. The time to experience them is now, before they are gone forever.