Where When How — March/April 2017
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Under The Sea Coral Heads
Jayne Baker, Flamingo Divers


Have you ever stopped to really wonder, what is a ‘Coral Head’? It’s a term we often use in tropical waters when snorkelling, diving or even boating (“Watch out for the coral head!”). It’s a broad, bland description of a phylum in our animal kingdom that is deserving of a closer look.

While we could have lengthy and complex descriptions of how coral is formed, a quick overview goes something like this. Corals, though plant like in appearance, are actually tiny sac-like animals (polyps) that cluster together in colonies that attach to hard surfaces. Each tiny polyp, usually millimetres in size, is fringed by a set of tentacles to aid in feeding. They build their ‘exo - skeleton’ at their base by drawing calcium carbonate from seawater. Different species of coral have uniquely shaped skeletons. Brain Coral forms complex ‘maze-like’ skeletons in round balls that resemble brains. Pillar coral grows upright in structure reminiscent of a fairy tale castle. Star Coral forms large overhanging mounds, just to name a few. Some corals are known as reef-building corals, helping form the limestone base of coral reefs.

Many factors come into play in maintaining the balance of our fragile coral reef systems world-wide. Warming ocean temperatures, acidification, runoff from urban development are just a few examples of threats our reef systems face. Stressors on a coral can cause it to ‘bleach’, that is, to release the Zooxanthellae that live within its tissues and lose its colour. Far from just providing the coral they inhabit with its colourful hue, Zooxanthellae play a crucial role in how corals obtain energy and nutrients. Bleached coral can sustain itself for a period of time, but if the stressors aren’t removed the coral colony is at risk of perishing. The effects of coral reef degradation are far reaching, with ecological and economic ramifications. All the more important to be mindful of pressures that human development puts on our underwater world.

Here in Turks and Caicos we are blessed with some beautiful, living reef systems, which brings us back to our original question: what is, or makes up, a coral head?

On your next dive or snorkel, take a moment to plant yourself in front of a coral head and do a quick mental survey of what’s in front of you. How many types of coral do you see? Can you name them all? Is that a Sponge, Coral or Plantlife that you’re looking at? You might be surprised at what you don’t know, and inspired to learn more. It’s easy to take the ‘inanimate’ objects (though they are anything but) for granted. These are the building blocks of our beautiful underwater world. Coral Heads house multiple species of coral and sponges and provide habitat for fish and invertebrate life. Taking a few moments to really take in what you’re looking at can open your eyes to how complex and bursting with life our underwater world is. Perhaps it may even make you more mindful of how important it is we protect this world for generations to come.