Protecting coral reefs: So much more than a tourist attraction

The warm climate and crystal clear, shallow waters surrounding the Cayman Islands are ideal for coral. For those of us lucky enough to live and vacation in this tropical paradise, we have the opportunity to experience the wonders of the reefs firsthand, but it is important that we understand a bit more about this amazing ecosystem.

Coral reefs are the most diverse of all marine ecosystems, so much so that they are often called “rainforests of the sea.” They are literally teeming with life and although they only cover a tiny fraction (less than one percent) of the earth’s surface and less than two percent of the ocean bottom, approximately one quarter of all ocean species depend on them for sources of food and shelter.

Underwater inhabitants are not the only ones relying on coral reefs, they are also of great importance and value to humans. We depend on reefs for food, tourism-based jobs, medicine, storm protection and for leisure.

Did you know that corals are actually animals and not plants? There are two types of coral: hard (e.g. brain coral and staghorn coral) and soft (e.g. sea fans and sea plumes) and they live in colonies consisting of many tiny individuals called polyps which secrete a hard calcium carbonate skeleton, forming the base for the colony. Corals live symbiotically with an alga (zooxanthellae) that gives the coral its vibrant color.

If corals are animals, then how do they eat? The polyps stretch out and use their tentacles to gather food such as plankton and small fish. By getting enough food and living in the right conditions they are able to thrive and grow beautifully, however coral reefs are fragile ecosystems and are very sensitive to changes.

Some of the changes reefs encounter are natural, but the changes caused by people are the real threats. These include pollution, climate change, dangerous fishing methods and direct contact with corals, which are easily damaged. When a coral becomes stressed, coral bleaching can occur. During this process, the algae living in the tissues of the coral is expelled which causes the coral to turn white. An unhealthy reef is not good news for wildlife or for people, therefore protecting our reefs against extreme changes is imperative.

The Cayman Islands boast many top-rated dive and snorkel sites, arguably some of the best in the world and that is all down to the main attraction: coral reefs. By generating awareness of the importance of coral reef ecosystems, we can greatly reduce the impact humans have on them, which will mean that future generations can continue to benefit as we do today.

So when you have the chance, head out on a relaxing snorkel or into the depths on an adventurous dive. Just remember to act responsibly and you never know what you’ll discover, but one thing is certain – you won’t be disappointed!