Series 01: Why I care for coral reefs
by Suchana Patel
Divers explore a reef with different coral species growing on it in Florida, US. (Ocean Agency / Coral Reef Image Bank)
I have always been someone with nearly no skills to survive a life at sea. After a near-death experience from falling into the deep end of a swimming pool at age six, to learning how to swim using Youtube, I have spent the past few years trying to overcome my fear of water by snorkeling through the sun-light waters every summer vacation.
My first snorkel was in the clear turquoise waters of Key West, Florida. Little fish delicately scuttled away, jellyfish glided away gracefully, and sea turtles curiously cruised around the sprawling architectural structures below.
Before we plunged into the balmy waters, we learned that Key West is the third-largest coral barrier reef in the world. We also learned that several sections of the reef had been cordoned off for recovery. Furthermore, we were told that touching corals could be dangerous for the corals and the divers and that we had to be careful and keep our distance.
Diving in opened up a whole new world. The coral gardens were bright and colorful; so colorful that even the foggy snorkel mask and the salty waters therein that blurred my vision couldn’t dull its effect.
Often mistaken as plants or rocks, corals are actually small marine invertebrate animals called coral polyps bound together over a hard exoskeleton that acts as their home. But like the majority of people, I had no idea what corals were. I didn’t know whether they were living or dead. Sometimes they looked like rigid, calcified, rock-like structures and sometimes like soft, plant-like structures, blooming and swaying.
So, here is a little guide that introduces some different types of corals to you!
From the left: a staghorn coral colony (Dave Burdick), pillar corals (Paul A. Selvaggio), and a Gorgonian or commonly called sea fen (Zach Ransom).
Staghorn corals are a typical type of stony coral, which form a calcareous skeleton. They form cylindrical branches growing into 'coral thickets' and can be found in reefs worldwide. They have the fastest growth of all corals of 4-8 inches (10 – 15 cm) per year and they are one of the three most important Caribbean corals species in terms of their contributions to reef growth and fish habitat; I saw some of these in Key West.
Growing upward from the sea floor without any secondary branching, pillar corals look just like their name suggests and are stony corals as well. Fascinatingly, these hard corals have polyps that can commonly be seen feeding during the day.
These are soft corals that have a horny skeleton. Their tiny polyps form colonies that are normally erect, flat, branching and reminiscent of a fan or look like little whips that have bushy, wiry extensions. They are flexible, colorful and often found where there is a stronger current in the water.
From the left: a Dendronephthya coral (Fabrice Dudenhofer/Coral Reef Image Bank), a table coral (Jamie Craggs), and small brain corals growing in Curaçao (Reef Patrol).
Carnation or Dendronephthya corals
Easily one of the most stunning corals in the ocean are carnation corals (genus Dendronephthya) that come in a range of spectacular colors and often flourish below underhangs and caves. They are soft corals with no hard skeleton. Mostly found in the Indo-Pacific region, carnation corals are, unfortunately, extremely sensitive to water chemistry and are on the decline.
Similar to staghorn corals, table corals branch out but in flat, plate-like shapes. The flat surface is ideal for taking in as much sunlight as possible and they can be found in sun-lit, shallow waters. They are almost always dotted with bright reef fish hovering around it.
These types of corals include bolder and brain corals and they exhibit the slowest growth of a few millimeters as they form massive calcareous skeletons. They are considered the stronghold of the reef and often bear little boring animals like Christmas tree worms or mussels. The brain corals owe their name to the fact that their polyps show a grooved, brain-like pattern on their surface.
Well, these are only some of the corals that are part of a healthy reef. The more I learned, the more I fell in love with these underwater cities bursting with life and that's why I care for coral reefs!