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by Kelly Secrest July 08, 2020 6 min read

Corals Definition: A tiny soft-bodied animal that lives within a stony skeleton clustered in large colonies that spend their adult lives in one location.

Is Coral a Plant?

Coral reefs have been around for 500 million years and are extremely important to ocean life.  Many are unaware that coral is a type of animal.  They are alive and are made up of thousands of polyps, or small animals.  A polyp is a small, soft-bodied organism that is related to sea anemones and jellyfish.  At the base of the polyps are hard limestone skeletons called calicles, and this provides the structure for the reefs.
Microscopic plant-like algae called zooxanthellae will live inside the polyps of the corals.  Did you know that corals aren’t able to make their own food? A mutualistic relationship is created as the coral provides a home, and the algae provide food for the coral.  Corals cannot survive without the zooxanthellae, so if zooxanthellae is expelled from the coral, it has to be quickly repopulated with another species of zooxanthellae.

Photography Credit: Cinder + Salt

How Coral Reefs Are Formed

Understanding how coral reefs are formed is essential and can help you process the extensive length of time it takes to rebuild them.  As explained, corals are made of many polyps.  A coral reef will form when a polyp latches onto a rock located on the seafloor and divides into thousands of clones.  The polyps secrete calcium carbonate layers beneath their bodies.  Other types of animals and plants add to the coral reef structure, such as algae, seaweed, sponges, sediment and mollusks.  When these organisms die, they act as the foundation for new corals.

Photography Credit: e-Reef News

Where Coral Reefs are Found

When most people think of coral reefs, they think of the most popular tourist attractions, such as the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, Australia. However, there are coral reefs in oceans all around us! Learning where coral reefs are located is vital to understand how important they are to the seas around the world.  You can find coral reefs in over 100 countries. However, most are located between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, in the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.  These are more of the tropical areas around the world.  The reefs are typically found on the surface to around 150 feet underwater.  The reason they are not found in significantly deep waters is that they require sunlight to survive.  Reefs are more frequently found in areas with a significant amount of waves because this will bring in food, nutrients and oxygen to the ecosystem.
There are many famous coral reefs that tourists can travel around the world.  Some of the most exceptional include:

The Grand Central Station and Chimneys in Fiji: Known as the “soft coral capital of the world.”

Photography Credit: Microsoft News
Belize Barrier Reef in Belize: The largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere.

Photography Credit: Banyan Bay
The Great Barrier Reef in Australia: This is the largest coral reef in the world, extending 1,250 miles from north to south.  There are over 300 types of hard coral of the Great Barrier Reef, more than 200 kinds of birds, and over 1,500 types of fish.

Photography Credit: Voa News
The Red Sea Coral Reef in the Red Sea: Home to over 300 species of coral and 1200 species of fish, 10% of which are not found anywhere in the world.

Photography Credit: Times Live
The Bonaire Reef in the Caribbean: Considered one of the healthiest reefs in the Caribbean.

Raja Ampat in Indonesia: Straddles the equator and forms part of the Coral Triangle, which contains the richest biodiversity on Earth.  The Coral Triangle is a triangular area formed between Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Solomon Island and Timor-Leste.

Photography Credit: Broadband TV

Importance of Coral Reefs

Corals in the ocean provide support to more species than any other marine ecosystem and have an enormous economic and recreational value. The biodiversity is essential because the ecosystem is used to find and create new medicines.  Currently, many drugs are going through development that originated from the animals and plants of the coral reefs.  These drugs can be cures for diseases like cancer, arthritis, human bacterial infections and viruses.  Scientists hypothesize that there may be millions of undiscovered species that live in or near the reefs.  
Coral reefs support fisheries and the tourism industry.  It is estimated that half of all the federally managed fisheries rely on these reefs.  Through tourism, people can visit the reefs through diving tours, recreational fishing trips, scuba diving and other reef businesses.  Specifically, the National Marine Fisheries Service has estimated that “the commercial value of U.S. fisheries from coral reefs is over $100 million.”
The structure of the coral reef acts as a buffer during storms and natural disasters.  The reef structure can take on 97% of the energy from waves, storms, and floods.  This can help to save lives and prevent property damage during these disasters.  As well, it regularly prevents erosion.  The absence of this barrier puts the human population at a much higher risk of harm from storms and the destruction of coastal areas and homes.

Photography Credit: Climate Central

Threats to the Coral Reefs

When you think of the reefs, you probably picture a colorful ecosystem with brightly pigmented fish and an abundance of corals in various shapes and colors.  However, many coral reefs are in danger and vanishing quickly.  Coral reefs are severely threatened by pollution, disease and destruction of habitats.  When these reefs are destroyed or harmed, this creates a catapult effect that harms the fish, plants and animals.  Also, tourism will decrease in a damaged area, affecting families and economies whose jobs rely on the coral ecosystem.
When humans release pollutants into the water, the nutrient levels can rise to unsafe levels, which trigger the rapid growth of algae and organisms that can suffocate the corals.  When chemicals and oil are released into the water, they float at the top of the water.  This doesn’t directly affect the coral ecosystem below, but it can be harmful if the corals are in the spawning process.  When corals are spawning, the eggs and sperm float near the surface during fertilization and then sink.

Photography Credit: Firststop
Some collect bright fish from the reefs for aquariums and corals for the jewelry trade.  When divers go into the water to collect the corals, they are often untrained and can damage the environment.  In a practice called “blast fishing,” dynamite and explosives are used to force the fish out of their hiding places.  Not only does this destroy species in the ecosystem, but it kills fish and stresses the coral to the extent that they expel their zooxanthellae.  As discussed in the definition section of corals, zooxanthellae must be present, or the coral cannot survive.  This stress on corals is often referred to as coral bleaching.  It can also be caused by heat and pollution, and the result is a ghostly, transparent skeleton.

Photography Credit: Climate Central
This photo is representative of a coral that lost its zooxanthellae and starved to death.  There is a chance that new zooxanthellae can inhabit the coral and keep it alive, but the warmer waters and lower water quality weakens the coral even faster.  When bleaching coral reefs occur, it can take several decades for the reefs to recover completely.  Adding to the effects of bleaching coral reefs, the most substantial threat to the coral reefs is climate change.
It is always shocking what the human population is capable of doing in a global crisis, and there are many ways to help save the coral reefs before it is too late.  Transitioning to renewable energy sources will have a tremendous impact, and keeping oneself accountable for your daily actions is another great start to doing your part in stopping climate change.


Ways to save our coral reefs

Buy one of our Black Trucker Hats to support the Coral Restoration Foundation™

Choose sustainable seafood
Plant trees: trees decrease the runoff into the oceans which can damage coral
Conserve water
Volunteer in beach or reef cleanups
Don’t buy or give coral as presents
Support local communities of coral reefs
Don’t touch the coral: visit a reef as a tourist and dive responsibly
Check your sunscreen ingredients: Look for and avoid harmful chemicals such as Oxybenzone or Octinoxate which can damage coral
Anchor at safe distances from the reef
Plant a coral and help to create coral nurseries
Contact your representatives and demand they take action
Raise awareness of the importance of corals

Photography Credit: Mangroves and Coral Reefs

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