Have you ever watched Finding Nemo, The Little Mermaid, or Spongebob Squarepants? While fantasizing about the beauties of the ocean, there is one beauty that is of great importance to the marine environment: Coral Reefs. The third week of July marks Reef Awareness Week, a week that all people should acknowledge. Let’s dive into the nature of what coral reefs are and why we should protect them.

Corals may look like colorful plants, but they are actually animals. As colonial organisms, they form coral reefs, which provide food and habitat for about 25% of marine organisms. Coral reefs are often deemed “rainforests of the sea” due to the biodiversity of species that they house. Interestingly, corals are related to jellyfish as they are made of thousands of polyp organisms which have tentacles that can sting. Although most corals rely on photosynthesis for food, they can form mutualistic relationships (friendships) with algae such as zooxanthellae, which provide coral with food and its vibrant colors.

What exact relationship can be found between coral reefs and humans? Well, many of the fish that are caught in our oceans call coral reefs their home, and they help to sustain our economies. Coral reefs are also able to protect people and land by reducing wave impact on shores. The world has currently lost over 20% of its coral reefs, with many still being threatened. The loss of reefs has been impacted severely by causes such as pollution and climate change, leading to coral bleaching, where corals expel their algae friends. As a result, corals begin to have limited access to nutrients and are extremely susceptible to diseases.

Many researchers and oceanographers are currently trying to preserve the corals in our oceans. Simply put, you can also partake in protecting our beautiful marine ecosystems by reflecting on your daily actions. Did you know that your choice of sunscreen can actually harm marine life? They can contain chemicals like oxybenzone which can wash off of your skin and induce coral bleaching and kill coral. In the future, you can explore “reef-safe” sunscreen or mineral sunscreen. Your choice of seafood also impacts coral reefs! By choosing sustainable seafood, you are preventing overfishing of fish that clean corals and saving corals from destructive fishing methods. As a general practice, be sure to conserve energy and water when not in use. Thank you for learning more about coral reefs and how you can help preserve our marine ecosystems.