Did you know that although coral reefs only occupy less than ¼ of 1% of the earth’s marine environment, these thriving underwater ecosystems are home to 25% of the entire planet’s marine life? Often referred to as the rainforests of the sea, their incredible species diversity rivals that of the mighty Amazon jungle, and it is said that the number of fish species that live within just two acres of healthy coral reef is more than the total number of bird species in all of North America. And did you know that the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is the largest living thing on the planet? Yet, like so many of our earth’s precious and life-sustaining ecosystems, coral reefs around the world are under severe threat.
The inconvenient truth
Sadly, it is estimated that 58% of the world’s coral reefs are threatened by human activity and significant reef degradation has already been observed in 93 of the 109 countries around the world where coral reefs occur. In fact, according to the WWF, roughly ¼ of the world’s coral reefs have been declared as damaged beyond repair, with another two thirds now under serious threat.
Of course, it comes as no surprise that the usual suspects are to blame: climate change and rising water temperatures; overfishing; pollution; plastic waste; destructive fishing practices; invasive and insensitive tourism operations; sedimentation; sunscreen use; and coral mining.
The WWF also states that the world has already lost 27% of its coral reefs. If this destruction continues at such an alarming rate, it is estimated that 60% of the world’s coral reefs will be depleted over the next 30 years. The time to act is now.
Leave our world a better place
So what can we do as individuals to help protect and conserve these delicate and critically endangered ecosystems? We have created an official pledge as part of our Oceans Without Borders initiative, which is a conservation collaboration with our social development partner, Africa Foundation. Globally conscious travellers can take this personal oath, as supporters of Oceans Without Borders, to take a shared responsibility for our future, as well as the futures of our children, oceans, planet and indeed our own health too.
5 things that may surprise you about coral reefs
1. Coral reefs rely on sunlight in order to grow, which is why they are most commonly found in shallow, warm and crystal clear tropical waters.
2. Those silky soft, white coral beaches we flock to every year — did you know they are made entirely of fish poop? That’s right. The humphead parrotfish consumes approximately 5 tons of coral each year and, in turn, produces 90 kg (200 lb) of velvety soft sand.
3. When coral reefs become distressed by dramatic changes in their ecosystem (such as a pronounced rise or drop in ocean temperatures, extreme low tides or overexposure to sunlight), they will expel the symbiotic algae that lives within their tissues, causing them to turn stark white and leaving them vulnerable to disease. This is known as coral bleaching, and with prolonged algae loss and continued stress, the coral will eventually die.
4. Coral reefs are 500 million years old and have stood the test of time … until now. Given the constant human encroachment and interference, not to mention the harmful effects of unwavering climate change, we could stand to lose these magnificent, colourful and thriving ecosystems forever. Coral reefs only grow at an average rate of just 2 cm a year, so when they die, their populations simply cannot be restored within our lifetime.
5. Coral reefs that exist in shallow waters are known to glow in the dark. This hauntingly beautiful phenomenon is caused by fluorescent proteins that develop and act as a sunblock to protect the delicate ecosystem from the sun’s harmful rays.