giving coral reefs a future

worldwide coral reef conservation through research, education, outreach, and restoration

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Series 04: Why I care for coral reefs

We proudly present Ellen Muller – the wonderful, breathtaking macro-magician photographer of Bonaire!

In 1980, I moved to the island of Bonaire from the United States and instantly fell in love with Bonaire's stunning coral reefs and crystalline waters. However, it wasn't until 2001, that I purchased a digital underwater camera and uncovered a new passion—exploring and photographing the vibrant ecosystem that our coral reefs offer. Living on Bonaire provides me with the opportunity to dive almost daily, and in doing so, I've been able to meticulously document many of the inhabitants of our reefs and their unique behaviors. I'm happy to say that I've even discovered a few new species along the way.  

A personal favorite for me is to photograph spawning activities. There's something quite extraordinary in watching the circle of life play out in a delicate dance beneath the moonlight. Coral spawning, invertebrates spawning, fish spawning—they are all immensely fascinating to me. I avidly document and research any type of spawning behavior. The majority of my dives take place at sunset or at night, which is when the reef really comes alive to showcase spawning activities. For coral spawning, my favorite time of year is late summer/early fall because there are so many opportunities to capture the unique spawning activities of a multitude of species. When the Orbicella corals (N.B.: massive, reef-building) spawn, the beautiful brittle stars will come out en masse to dine on their eggs and this is a spectacle that I never tire of!  

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Coral spawning: macro and landscape shot of Orbicella, close-up of staghorn and brain coral.

Highlights from my coral spawning dives include documenting the unusual late-afternoon spawning of grooved brain coral (Diploria labyrinthformis), along with the timing of maze coral (Meandrina meandrites) spawning. For invertebrates, some of the rarer spawning events that I have documented are Orangeball Corallimorphs, Basket Stars, and Tube-Dwelling Anemones. On the fish side, I have witnessed and documented over seventy-six spawnings of a particular favorite of Bonaire—the Longlure Frogfish.

It is truly incredible to witness the variety of spawning strategies used by different species. Some seem to be very successful and others not as much. As I close in on the seventh decade of my life, I often tell myself that I am getting too old for all of this late-night diving (sometimes involving multiple dives a night!) during the coral spawning season. That said, so far, every year when the spawning season starts, I am drawn right back into this magical and mesmerizing underwater spectacle.

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The daylight (late afternoon) spawner: the grooved brain coral, butterfly fish feeding on its spawn; Orange ball Corallimorph, its tentacles packed with gametes.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and it is my deepest hope that through my photographs and commitment to documenting our ocean's eco-system, that I am able to showcase the incredible diversity of some of the amazing reef inhabitants. Through these pictures, I hope to convey how precious, mystifying, and fragile our coral reef systems are. Coral reefs are under immense pressure at this point in time. We've yet to discover all of the treasures that the ocean can reveal, and it is our duty—and honor—to protect and preserve one of the greatest gifts Earth has to offer her future generations.

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Flower coral spawning, Ellen's sharp and alert eyes on the lookout for the next motive, spawning brittle star.

You can view more of my photos, including many albums of spawning, at pbase, and follow me on Instagram @themoonlitreef!

By Ellen Mueller & Tricia O'Malley

...and special thanks to VIP-Diving on Bonaire!

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SECORE's lead partners are:

Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium
California Academy of Science
Hagenbeck
The Builders Initiative

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