Coral reef habitats play a major role in the ecosystems of the world’s oceans. These thriving marine environments create biodiversity and provide homes, protection and a food source for ocean animals as well as protect the coastlines and contribute to the world’s health, medical, tourism and recreation industries.
Reefs are among the most diverse and valuable ecosystems in the world. They support more species of fish, plant life and aquatic animals than any other marine environment. It is estimated that nearly 4,000 species of fish, 800 species of coral and millions of other undiscovered types of nature live in and around the reef systems of the world.
Perhaps the most important aspect of reefs is the protection and shelter that they provide for marine animals. The colorful coral, hidden nooks and intricate swirls of brain coral, anemones and plate coral give fish, shrimp, eels and seahorses a place to live and eat, raise their young and hide from natural predators. Likewise, reef fish and mollusks provide food for millions of people a year.
Contributions to the world
In addition to playing a major role in the environment of the ocean, reefs contribute a great deal to the world itself. Reefs protect the coastline from strong currents and waves caused by storms, hurricanes and tsunamis by slowing down the waves before they get to shore. Barrier reefs do just what the name suggests. They provide a barrier between the water and the shore. This results in protection from on-shore erosion and property damage. Reefs also protect the wetlands along the coast, as well as ports and harbors.
Corals also help control how much carbon dioxide is present in the ocean water. When coral polyps turn carbon dioxide into calcium carbonate, the sediment falls to the floor as limestone sediment. Over time, this process may raise up from the floor as dry land or be dissolved back into the water or air as carbon dioxide. Without this chain reaction, the amount of carbon dioxide in the water would rise, which would affect every living thing on Earth.
A variety of drugs have been developed from reef plants and animals for use as treatment in areas such as cancer, viruses, arthritis and other conditions. Secosteroids, used by corals to protect themselves, have been used to treat inflammatory issues such as asthma and arthritis. Bivalves are being studied to learn more about the aging process, metabolic activity and certain environmental stressors. Yondelis, or trabectedin, is a soft tissue sarcoma treatment derived from the marine organism Ecteinascidia turbinata, a sea squirt found in the shallow waters of Florida, the Caribbean, Bermuda and the Gulf of Mexico.
Since reefs are located in exotic and desirable destinations around the world, including the Pacific, the Florida Keys, Southeast Asia, Hawaii and the Caribbean, it is only natural that their tourism draw would be an asset to the local economy. Travelers are contributing to the economy and providing jobs to local people by participating in diving tours and fishing trips, booking hotels, dining at restaurants and visiting other businesses near the reefs.
Consideration of the delicate reef ecosystem is a top concern when scuba diving in any area of the world’s oceans. The buoyancy compensator worn by divers allows them to get close without actually touching the coral, which could potentially harm the coral polyps. Be aware of where the boat anchor is being dropped, or use reef mooring buoys if they are available.
Plunge below the surface of crystal clear water into a world filled with the brilliant colors of anemones, blue sponges, chili sponges and firecracker coral set against intricate spirals and wavy spires of bleached white tree and plate coral. This magical setting is inhabited by urchins, seahorses, crabs, yellow tang, gobies, parrotfish and clown fish as well as neighboring marine animals such as sea turtles and sharks.
Whether it is a natural, man-made or artificial reef such as a ship wreck, coral reefs provide some of the most breathtaking scenery a diver will ever experience.