Up to 4,000 individual species can co-exist on a single reef.Take Action ↓
Healthy coral reefs are like bustling underwater cities. Millions of fish gather to spawn and nurse, seeking protection in the intricate caves and coral formations. Giant rays hover patiently above make-shift cleaning stations as shrimp pick parasites off their wings. Sea turtles and dugongs drift along the flamboyant seafloor, nibbling on reef sponges and patches of seagrass, while sharks dart between towering reef structures in pursuit of a bite to eat.
From seahorses and starfish to oysters and octopi, coral reefs teem with life. In fact, over 25% of all sea life comes to the reef to feed, breed, or just breathe, which is rather incredible considering coral reefs only cover about 0.2% of the seafloor. Because of their immeasurable biodiversity and productivity, coral reefs are nicknamed the “rainforests of the sea,” even though 32 of the 34 recognized animal Phyla can be found on reefs, compared to the 9 Phyla found in tropical rainforests. These vibrant ocean metropolises are truly the foundation for life under the waves, and rightly so, as reefs themselves are alive.
“Coral reefs represent some of the world’s most spectacular beauty spots, but they are also the foundation of marine life: without them many of the sea’s most exquisite species will not survive.”Scheherazade Goldsmith
All coral reefs started out as a single coral polyp— a tiny, soft animal like a mini jellyfish or anemone that gets its energy from the sun. Guided by the sounds of marine life, thousands of floating polyps reunite on a nearby hard surface, together forming a coral colony. The coral reefs we see today are like living museums— the reflection of thousands of years of history. Australia’s 1,400 mile (2,300 km) long Great Barrier Reef began forming over 500,000 years ago and is actually the compilation of more than 2,900 individual reef colonies. Coral reefs are the oldest, largest, and most complex living systems on Earth. Many, like the Great Barrier Reef, are designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites because of their central role in so many global cultures and our collective natural heritage.
The rich biodiversity of coral reefs translates directly into food security, livelihoods, medicines, and a plethora of other critical human benefits. Healthy coral reef ecosystems provide a vital source of food and income for coastal communities, such that destroying even one kilometer of coral reef can translate to the loss of between $137,000—$1,200,000 over a 25-year period in fishing and tourism industries. Coral reefs also protect over 93,000 miles of shoreline in more than 100 different nations and territories. Known to reduce up to 97% of incoming wave energy, healthy reefs are truly the first line of defense for hundreds of millions of people against severe storms and erosion. The value of coral reefs is only just being realized. Recent medical breakthroughs in the treatment of diseases like cancer and HIV have come from organisms found on coral reefs.
Yet, despite their undeniable value, coral reefs face severe degradation from a wide and intensifying array of threats. Coastal development, overfishing, and ocean acidification (to name a few) are challenging the very survival of the corals we all so heavily depend on. Currently, over 75% of the world’s coral reefs are threatened.