Coral reefs have always fascinated us. From their depiction on popular films like “Finding Nemo” to their appearance in documentaries and ads for tropical vacations, it’s clear that we love to marvel at the vibrant colors of coral reefs and the exotic species which call them home.
Coral reefs are undoubtedly beautiful, but they also have an importance that goes far beyond their looks. And when you look beneath the surface and begin to understand how coral reefs impact the environment and our own lives, you begin to appreciate them so much more.
So what is a coral reef exactly? To put it simply, they are complex, fragile ecosystems composed largely of tiny creatures called polyps, a relative of sea anemones and jellyfish. These polyps extract calcium from seawater and form hard external limestone shelters or soft internal skeletons, creating what we know as coral. These coral can be formed in large groups, which tropical fish and other species seek out as shelter. In turn, other species which depend on those fish are attracted to the reef. This diverse collection of coral and the species that live there form a coral reef, which can stretch for thousands of miles and sustain life for millennia. Coral reefs occupy less than 0.1% of the ocean’s surface, but they provide a home for more than 25% of marine species.
These coral reefs not only support countless animals and provide a spectacular underwater landscape for filmmakers, scuba divers, and other ocean explorers, they give immeasurable value to people around the world. They protect shorelines around the world from coastal storms and erosion, often sparing people’s homes from the worst natural disasters. Fisheries depend on coral reefs to provide seafood, an important source of protein and nutrition for most of the world’s population. Tourism of coral reefs is also a major economic contributor to several developing countries. Because of their biodiversity, coral reefs can even provide research to help scientists develop life-saving medicine and treatments. The annual global economic value of coral reefs is estimated at over $29 billion, but we can’t put a price on essential they are to the environment.
Considering how important they are, it’s all the more alarming that coral reefs around the world are rapidly dying off. Reefs are very sensitive to the rising ocean temperature caused by climate change, and as the ocean heats up, the algae which coral depend on for food are killed off. This can leave coral vulnerable to other threats or even cause them to die of starvation in a tragic phenomenon known a coral bleaching. Increased carbon dioxide levels have also caused ocean acidification, which can significantly weaken coral. Reefs are also continually threatened by pollution, overfishing, boat anchors, and even damage from scuba divers and fishermen. If things continue as they are, 90% of the world’s coral will be threatened by 2030. By 2050, almost all the coral will be in danger. We could one day live in a world where coral are almost extinct, and the consequences could be disastrous.
To turn the tide, people need to be aware of how vital coral reefs are and how to help prevent their loss.
We’re doing our part. In pursuit of its mission to inspire appreciation for our seas, the Aquarium has educated on the importance of coral reefs since we first opened our doors. Our Flower Gardens exhibit shows off some of the gorgeous coral and marine life that make up the Flower Gardens Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico. Located about 225 miles east of the Aquarium, Flower Gardens is a value shelter for marine creatures ranging from tiny fish to the enormous whale sharks. Our exhibits educate people on the threats the reef face such as the invasive lionfish and anchor damage. We also encourage divers who visit the Sanctuary to “leave only bubbles and take only memories.”
Several of our conservation and education programs are also dedicated to protecting coral reefs. We reach over 75,000 children each year to teach about coral reef life cycles and how people can impact their fragile existence. Schoolchildren who visit the Aquarium are taught about these colorful homes for fish and through our Aquavision Distance Learning program, students the world over are able to look into our Flower Gardens exhibit over a webcam and learn more about reefs from Aquarium instructors -without even leaving the classroom.
On the conservation front, our Wildlife Care, Conservation, and Research Fund supports several research projects that explore the health of coral reefs in the Gulf of Mexico. I recent years, we’ve even partnered with coral experts to help grow coral. Our work with Sexual Coral Reproduction (SECORE) focused on helping coral to reproduce while protecting endangered coral from human activities. Aquarists and scientists from SECORE and the Aquarium would collect polyp eggs, fertilize them in a lab, and then return them to the ocean.
Caribbean Journey will provide another window into coral reefs, showing you reefs and their native species from multiple perspectives and letting you know their importance. Venture through Caribbean Journey’s jungle and peer down into several exhibits to spot vibrant coral and tropical fish. Travel downstairs to dive below the sea and get an up-close look at coral reefs from below the ocean’s surface. Here are coral of every shape imaginable and in every color of the rainbow, from bright yellow staghorn and elkhorn coral to blue fan coral. And darting among the coral are coral reef species. There’s parrotfish, butterflyfish, snappers, lobsters, angelfish, barracudas, and so much more. At the H-E-B Caribbean Shark Exhibit, notice even the ocean’s most infamous predators make their home among the reef. Discover that each species depends on the reef for their survival and each contributes to the reef’s overall beauty and purpose.
Caribbean Journey will give you a rare look into the coral reefs of the Caribbean which few of us would see otherwise, while reminding you that they need to be protected. By encountering the exotic beauty of Caribbean coral reefs and reef species in-person, we hope you’re inspired more than ever to help us keep reefs alive for future generations.