Can you tell me what a coral is? Is it an animal or a plant? Or is it something else entirely? In fact, it is both animal and plant, and then some!
Corals are one of the unsung wonders of the animal kingdom. We’ve all heard of them, yet most do not consider them to be creatures worth getting to know; they do not have the allure of soft fur, or large round eyes as the large mega-fauna do. However, coral reefs are as indispensable to marine ecosystems as forests are to terrestrial ecosystems. Nonet
heless, they rely upon a very specific set of environmental parameters; temperature, ocean chemistry, water clarity, and sunlight.
Consider the harsh environment of the desert. Now consider the under-water equivalent – an unnerving thought? It is these unforgiving conditions to which corals are so expertly adapted; their status as animal, plant, and mineral has, thus far, afforded them the ability to cope with whatever mother nature has thrown at them.
Essentially, corals comprise a skeleton ‘layered’ with thousands of tiny structures called polyps;
The mineral = the skeleton. The skeleton is the bulk of the coral; the portion you don’t see (at least, you’re not supposed to!), and the portion that grows.
The animal = the polyp. Each polyp comprises a circular mouth (leading down to an internal stomach) surrounded by tentacles. Thousands of polyps live upon the skeleton, supplying it with limestone to grow. The plant = the algae. Within each polyp lives millions of microscopic algae. Via the process of photosynthesis, algae provide the polyp with the nutrients it requires to survive. In exchange, the polyp feeds the algae via its waste. This symbiotic relationship, in which algae supply coral with food in exchange for shelter and nutrients, is the foundation upon which corals survive. Without this food source, corals would simply starve. Climate changeAs climate change runs apace, corals are facing increased threats to their existence. In particular, corals are experiencing two phenomena; coral bleaching and ocean acidification. Let’s take a look at the former. In the current climate crisis corals are being forced to live near or exceed their temperature parameters (approximately 20-30oC). Unbeknown to many, 93% of the heat trapped in our atmosphere as a result of global warming is transferred to the oceans. This elevation results in the widely recognised event called coral bleaching. Research into this unknown ‘disease’ first began in the 1980s. It was discovered by a group of scientists, including Prof. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, that the only experimental alteration that caused coral to turn white was an increase in temperature of just 2oC. At the time, their suggestion that this was an early sign of global warming was somewhat ridiculed – who’s laughing now :/
At the point of bleaching there is still a chance for corals to recover; a reduction in temperature will allow the corals to recruit and replace lost algae. We have seen examples of this occur in French Polynesia and Palau, where coral reefs affected by bleaching have regenerated, once again displaying majestic brightly coloured corals. However, once the coral takes on a more ‘fuzzy’ brown appearance (as quoted by Ruth Gates in Chasing Coral), it is most likely dead, and the chances of recovery are almost definitely zero.
Last Friday saw the worldwide premiere of Chasing Coral - an all-important documentary aimed at raising awareness of a rather ‘out of sight out of mind’ issue, whilst changing the public’s perception of coral reefs. A few years ago ex advertising professional turned underwater photographer, Richard Vevers, approached ‘Chasing Ice’ director Jeff Orlowski with an idea, to bring the issue of coral bleaching to the main stage. Only then would it be possible to both educate and energise the public.
The documentary primarily follows Richard and self-confessed ‘coral nerd’ Zack Rago (and camera technician) as they attempt to record the process of coral bleaching via underwater cameras, while gaining insight from marine biologists. All with the help of a team of scientists, camera technicians, and production crew. The end result is a moving and somehow beautiful transition from life to death.
Chasing Coral does what literature and photos cannot; it simply uses visual proof (time lapses) to show that coral bleaching is occurring worldwide, and that the driving force of this issue is climate change – the evidence is indisputable. But, what’s more, Chasing Coral emanates a sense of hope which, as I mentioned in my blog about conservation optimism, is exactly what will inspire the masses to get behind this issue and make a real change.
The film can be streamed for free now on Netflix, and is a must see for everybody. If you fail to be enthralled by this underwater world, or moved by its destruction, then I won’t believe you were truly watching ;)