Dive down to coral reefs to learn about their struggles and successes in a changing ocean.
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Coral reef struggles
Corals take decades to grow, but only a few seconds to destroy. When boats run aground or put their anchors down on reefs, it can tear up old, established ecosystems.
Corals thrive in clean, clear water. Pollution from industries, fossil fuels, chemicals, landscaping and agriculture, and human waste can lower the water quality and harm corals.
Greenhouse gases in our atmosphere are warming up the planet, and ocean heatwaves put stress on the coral.
Oceans are also acidifying, which is hard on coral skeletons. You can listen to the Go Forth and Science Podcast episode on ocean acidification and corals to learn more.
Coral bleaching is also a product of climate change and pollution. When the coral gets stressed, it pushes out the colorful algae that lives inside of it. This algae provides food for the coral while the coral provides protection for the algae. Without it, the coral is still alive but cannot survive for long, and must get the algae back in order to live.
Commercial fishing has led to lower numbers of reef fish in these ecosystems. Many of those fish help clean coral and keep the reefs in balance.
Coral reef successes
Institutions like Mote and University of Miami’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Science are asking important questions like what makes corals resistant to disease, and how to maintain diversity of these reefs when so many species are dying. They’re looking at corals from the big picture of the reef, all the way down to the tiny specifics of a coral’s microbiome.
This animation shows young coral under natural and blue light. The bright colors are the coral’s version of sunscreen.
Several years ago, it was discovered that coral grows faster if you break it up into pieces, meaning you can take one small piece of coral and propagate much more. Organizations like Coral Restoration Foundation are taking this discovery and using it to regrow coral reefs. Underwater nurseries raise the smaller bits of coral until they are ready to be replanted on reefs.
Similar to how we can reforest a field, folks are replanting coral onto reefs. By anchoring bits of coral onto the rock of an empty reef, those pieces then grow up and together to form a coral reef again. Different groups are researching the best anchoring methods, like marine epoxies and cement, to ensure that the coral can withstand storm waves until it anchors itself to the rock.
What you can do to help
You can make sure the seafood you eat comes from a sustainable population. This means there are enough individuals that the population can keep going, even when some is taken away. We also need to make sure the seafood is caught in a way that doesn’t harm the reef and its other inhabitants.
You can look up sustainable fish to eat, and which species to avoid, here.
Reef safe boating
Instead of anchoring, use already-placed mooring buoys to secure your boat. This ensures that boaters aren’t dragging their anchors across reefs and damaging the coral. If you are boating in the Florida Keys, you can learn more about their mooring system and learn where the buoys are here.
Healthy lawn care
Do you have a large green lawn that drains into a ditch on the side of the road? You can convert that into an oasis instead! Plant native grass, groundcover, shrubs, and flowers instead of that high-maintenance green lawn (which is most likely an invasive species), and you’ll help reduce the amount of pollution that is running off into our water as well as help filter out some of the toxins.
Reef safe sunscreen
There is still some debate about what makes a sunscreen “reef safe” since there are no governing requirements for that label. But it is generally accepted that oxybenzone and octinoxate are chemicals to avoid. And never discount the effectiveness of a large hat and a sun shirt! Nothing beats sunburn avoidance like shade.
A lot of folks helped me with this project, from funding dives to teaching me about corals. You can check out some of the organizations below.
- Mote Marine Labs
- University of Miami Rescue a Reef and the RSMAS Coral Lab
- Coral Restoration Foundation
- Women Divers Hall of Fame
- Bruce Nyden
- In memory of Dr. Susan Williams