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 knowing; they don’t have the allure of soft fur or large round eyes that chimps and pandas have. However, coral reefs are as indispensable to the oceans as forests are on land, and they rely upon very specific environmental conditions.
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; the fact that they are actually animal, plant, and mineral has allowed them to cope with whatever mother nature has thrown at them.
The mineral = the skeleton. The skeleton is the bulk of the coral. The part you don’t see (well…you’re not supposed to!).
The animal = the polyp. A mouth (leading down to a stomach) surrounded by tentacles. Thousands of polyps live on the skeleton, supplying it with limestone to grow.
The plant = the algae. Millions of microscopic algae live inside each polyp. The algae photosynthesise and provide the polyp with nutrients. In exchange, the polyp feeds the algae through its waste.
The corals rely on this symbiotic relationship to survive.
As climate change runs apace corals are facing increased threats. In particular, corals are experiencing two phenomena: coral bleaching and ocean acidification. Let’s take a look at bleaching.
Currently, corals are being forced to live near or exceed their maximum temperature threshold (approximately 20-30oC). Unbeknown to many, 93% of the heat trapped in our atmosphere from greenhouse gases is transferred to the oceans – this rise in temperature is what causes coral bleaching. It only takes an increase of 2oC to cause bleaching!
This is one of the hardest concepts to communicate to the wider community; and reasonably so, I guess. It is easy to think that 2oC is nothing (it certainly doesn’t help when climate deniers actively pick fun in this regard! But, I would urge you to learn science from the scientists). When we go on holiday, we don’t see a huge difference between 20oC and 22oC do we?? But a fluctuation in climate as small as 2oC can be extremely impactful on the environment. So that’s an important point to remember 🙂
At the point of bleaching there is still a chance for corals to recover; if temperatures go down corals should be able to replace lost algae. Unfortunately, once the coral takes on a more ‘fuzzy’ brown look they are most likely dead and will not recover.
In July Netflix released the documentary Chasing Coral – 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 the idea to bring the issue of coral bleaching to the main stage. Thankfully, he said ‘yes’.
The documentary primarily follows Richard and self-confessed ‘coral nerd’, Zack Rago (and camera technician) as they try to record the process of coral bleaching using underwater cameras, 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 uses visual proof to show that coral bleaching is a global problem caused by climate change. But what’s more, Chasing Coral emanates a sense of hope which is exactly what will inspire the masses to get behind this issue and make a real change.
If you fail to be enthralled by this underwater world, or moved by its destruction, then I won’t believe you were truly watching 😉 To keep up with conservation issues subscribe below.