About Caribbean Coral Reefs - 08/17/13 12:09 PM
Caribbean conditions encourage the growth of gorgeous corals.
From glass-bottom boat tours to scuba diving, coral reefs are front and center among attractions of the Caribbean. The environmental conditions found in the Caribbean Sea have given rise to coral reefs that rank among the world's finest, and these reefs are home to a variety of sea life. Despite their stony appearance, coral reefs are fragile, living things. The best way to ensure their future is to show them the same respect you would give any kind of wildlife that you traveled hundreds or thousands of miles to see.
What Are Corals?
A common misconception is that corals are rocks, fossils or mineral deposits. They are, in fact, marine animals whose exoskeletons are attached to rocks and other solid, underwater formations, such as shipwrecks. A living coral reef is made up of colonies of tiny organisms that feed by straining plankton from the water. They also typically have a symbiotic relationship with certain strains of algae. Corals create shells made of calcium carbonate, and it is these shells that give a reef it's stony appearance.
The Caribbean presents an ideal breeding ground for corals. These creatures thrive in warm waters, roughly 73 to 84 degrees, a temperature band that describes nearly the entire Caribbean all year around. They grow twice as fast when exposed to strong sunlight, making the Caribbean's tropical latitude and clear waters a double blessing.
Caribbean Corals Most Caribbean coral reefs are what are known as fringing reefs. These grow directly offshore with either a shallow lagoon or nothing behind them. For that reason, they can be seen as extensions of the shoreline, even if they are hundreds of yards from land.
However, other important coral reefs are present in the Caribbean. The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, stretching from the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico to the Bay Islands of Honduras, is the second-largest barrier reef system in the world. The Caribbean waters off Belize are home to three of the four true coral atolls in the Western Hemisphere, including the famous Great Blue Hole.
Corals as Attractions
Besides being colorful and sometimes elegant, coral reefs create a habitat for entire marine ecosystems. The coral reefs of main Caribbean islands and mainland communities have become the setting for a major tourist industry. Scuba divers from around the world travel to the Caribbean just to see the coral reefs and the diverse marine life they support, while other tourists are happy to see many of the same sights through snorkeling.
There are a handful of direct actions a traveler can take to preserve the coral reefs in the Caribbean. Go out of your way to avoid standing on or otherwise touching the reefs. Inquire with any dive or snorkel tour operator about how it anchors the ship. If the operator tosses the anchor over the side and onto the reef, then take your money to a more coral-friendly company. Do not buy coral "artworks" from galleries and shops, as these coral formations are often cut alive from reefs.