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Coral Reef Information and Resources

Coral reefs are one of the more varied ecosystems, providing a home for a quarter of the ocean’s creatures. The majority of the world’s reefs are found in tropical waters, specifically in the Pacific Ocean. People and animals rely on ocean reefs for food, and some areas depend on the reefs for tourism and protection of the shoreline.

Although coral seem like hard rocks, it is actually a living creature. All coral reefs begin with a small polyp. The polyps are fragile organisms, and each one excretes an exoskeleton for protection from predators. This cup shaped exoskeleton attaches to other polyps around it and these skeletal polyps form a coral colony. This coral colony extends to form what people know as coral reefs. As the polyps continue to excrete new exoskeletons, they move upward and outward, living on the surface of the old, dead skeletal system created previously.

There are three types of coral reefs: atoll, fringing, and barrier. An atoll reef is a circular reef that surrounds a deep lagoon. Charles Darwin studies the formation of atolls and concluded that these diverse reefs were the result of coral growth along with the slow sinking of a small island. Fringing reefs are the most commonly seen types of reefs in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean. These reefs form close to shore or even jut out from the shore. A barrier reef runs parallel to the shore and often forms on the edge of continental shelves. Barrier reefs are separated from the shore line by a lagoon that has very deep portions.

The majority of the world’s coral reef systems are located near the western sides of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. Scientists generally classify coral reefs as existing in two major oceanic regions—the Indo-Pacific and the Greater Caribbean. The Indo-Pacific region includes reef formation in the central and southern Pacific Ocean, including Hawaii and Japan. It also includes the coastal regions of Taiwan, Australia, Philippines, the east coast of Africa, and the Red Sea. The Greater Caribbean includes all of the western Atlantic, including the coastal areas of South America. Other areas not included in these regions, but which also have reef development, are southern Brazil and Bermuda. Some of the most famous reefs include Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the Belize Barrier Reef.

  • Chagos Conservation Trust is an organization that helps protect and conserve the world’s largest atoll reef in Chagos Archipelago.
  • Aldabra is an atoll virtually untouched by people, making it one of the most purest coral reef systems in the Western Indian Ocean.
  • Tubbataha Reefs Park is the Philippines only marine park which allows people to experience the Tubbataha reefs.

There is a variety of zones included when scientists study coral reefs. All reefs are composed of a fore reef, the part that slopes toward the ocean, and a back reef, the part closest to shore. The back reef has a reef flat, and it’s the part most people come across first when snorkeling or scuba diving. This area may have little coral, but it usually has an abundance of sea life. The reef crest is the area of the reef exposed during low tide. It receives the most damage from waves and temperature changes. The fore reef has the buttress zone, which are the deepest parts of the reef composed of channels and grooves. The fore reef is the area most divers will spot turtles, sharks, and an abundance of fish.

Coral Reef Biodiversity

Coral reefs have the highest biodiversity of any marine ecosystem. They provide food and shelter for around 25% of all marine life, including plants and animals.

  • National Geographic has a photographic journey through a coral reef, including descriptions and pictures of creatures found throughout reefs.
  • The College of Exploration has a database of plants found on Bermuda’s coral reefs.
  • GBR Explorer lists the types of plants important to the biodiversity of the Great Barrier Reef.
  • Science Daily has an article about a brand new worm discovered on the coral reefs.
  • New Scientist has an article about the proliferation of biodiversity caused by coral reefs.

Since coral reefs are living organisms, they are in danger of becoming extinct. A variety of factors contribute to the breakdown of coral reefs, but the number one reason for coral reef damage is man. With an increase in carbon dioxide emissions, the PH level of the ocean has decreased. This greatly affects the corals ability to create the exoskeleton needed for protection and the buildup of the reef. Carbon emissions also cause an increase in water temperature, commonly called global warming by environmentalists, and high water temperatures can kill off large coral colonies.

Tourism and pollution are another main cause of damage to the reefs. Coral reefs left unprotected by state or national agencies are at risk of being trampled on and polluted by people visiting the reef. Real estate developers on a quest to earn money damage reefs by harvesting the limestone or coral for use in building materials. In some instances, development happens directly on the reef. Local people may harvest coral to sell as souvenirs or to use as decorations for their home. Coastal folks who rely on the coral reef fish for survival also destroy the reefs through unsafe fishing practices. This can be using cyanide to catch fish, banging on the coral reefs with sticks, or overfishing the reefs so that populations deplete.

Coral Reef Activist Organizations

There are many organizations around the world whose main goal is to protect the coral reefs. Some organizations help coral reefs all over the world, while others focus on one particular endangered reef.

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