Florida is an ocean-lover’s dream location.
Pristine beaches, warm sunshine, amazing seafood, an abundance of coastal life and some beautiful underwater worlds that tourists flock from all over the world to experience.
If you’ve ever done any scuba diving, snorkeling, swimming or paddling in the blue waters off the Florida Keys and Southeast Florida, then you’re surely familiar with the coral reefs that bring so many visitors and nature enthusiasts to the shores of the Sunshine State.
In fact, the Florida Reef — as the coral reef here is called — is one of the largest in the world, and certainly the largest in the continental United States. It stretches for about 350 miles from Dry Tortugas National Park in the Florida Keys to the St. Lucie Inlet in Martin County in southeast Florida.
A beginner’s guide to coral and coral reefs
Why are coral reefs important?
Coral reefs are sometimes referred-to as rainforests of the sea because of their incredible biodiversity and complex ecosystems. Nearly a quarter of all the marine species on our little blue planet live in coral reefs, even though the reefs themselves only account for about 0.1% of our oceans’ total area!
Coral reefs support these millions of marine species by offering protection from predators, spawning grounds for breeding, nurseries for raising young and hunting grounds for predators. They are also central to preventing shore erosion, as the shallow-water reefs help dissipate up to 97% of wave energy heading toward their coastlines. Then there’s the scuba-diving tourism, the fishing opportunities, research opportunities and other commercial and tourism-driven value that these coral reefs bring.
All in all, coral reefs benefit both the marine life and the land life on shore!
What is coral, anyway?
Corals are actually animals, not rocks or mineral formations as they’re often depicted. They are made from large colonies of tiny individual polyps, all of which grow together on a skeleton of secreted calcium carbonate which they produce as a byproduct of digestion. These coral skeletons come in many different shapes, sizes and colors depending on the type of coral, and some coral groups even create soft, tentacle-like structures that seem to wave in the breeze — or, in this case, wave in the seas.
If you get an up-close look at these coral structures, you’ll see that each tube-like polyp is surrounded by tiny tentacles, all of which carry a venom which can immobilize unlucky prey. These tentacles are how the corals catch their food — small zooplankton, microorganisms and even small fish! — and how they bring the food to the coral’s mouth inside the tube.
Fascinating stuff, right! These complex little creatures are absolutely vital to the survival of flourishing reef ecologies, and without them, massive damage can be done to not only the critters and creatures who live under the sea, but also to the mainland and shoreline they live beside.
Why do corals have different colors?
Coral reefs are bright and beautiful, with coral groups in vibrant reds and bright oranges, deep purples, soft greens and neon yellows creating a psychedelic, fishy forest on the ocean floor. You may also notice that corals closer to the surface are brighter and more vibrant than ones deeper in the water, and some corals may even showcase a variety of colors on just one coral skeleton!
So, what makes corals so dang beautiful?
When we look at colorful coral, we’re really looking at two living organisms living symbiotically: coral, of course, and a type of ocean algae. This algae, known as zooxanthellae, live within the tissues of the coral and give the coral a greenish-brown tint. The algae uses the chlorophyll in its cells to convert sunlight into sugars, which both the algae and the coral feast on and use to sustain themselves. Hence, the reason coral closer to the surface is brighter in color! More sunshine means more sugar, and more sugar means more food for the coral to grow and thrive.
Coral itself can come in different colors, depending on its genetic makeup. Interestingly enough, these colors come from fluorescent proteins found within the coral, giving the corals bright, neon-like colors that make for seemingly-unnatural colorations.
What type of coral can you see in Florida?
Like we said, the Florida Reef is one of the world's largest reefs, and it's home to a wide variety of corals which, in turn, create a diverse ecosystem of fish, crustaceans and more.
Unfortunately, much of the reef has been destroyed due to climate change and human activity, but researchers and marine conservationists are working hard to restore the coral reef to its former glory.
At the reef's peak, though, there were over 35 species of octocorals (soft, tentacle-like corals) and 45 species of stony corals (hard, skeleton-like corals) that called the Florida waters home. Most of these corals were categorized into three major types: branching, star and brain. A new band name, anyone?
Branching corals are called branching corals because of their tendency to branch out. Yeah, who would've thought? They are composed of straight segments of coral that branch straight out in shapes that resemble antlers more than they resemble trees. Either way, these branching corals would grow in huge groups that would get so large and so clustered that they would fuse with each other, creating a massive coral cage that covered the ocean floor.
Star corals are actually more dome-shaped than star-shaped, but their polyp tentacles resemble stars when they fold inward to protect the coral's mouth. The whole cluster looks like a puffy dome covered in stars.
Finally, brain corals look a lot like, well… brains. The skeletons are round in shape, but the polyps are arranged in a way that they resemble waves and ridges over the skeleton's surface, giving the whole creature an eerie, brain-like look that's certainly made more than a few divers do a double-take in their presence.
So, if you live in or near our luxury South Florida apartments, then definitely try to catch a glimpse of the beautiful coral reef (what's left of it, anyway) while you're still in the area. There are only a few places in the world where you can experience an ecosystem like this, and what better place to see it than in your very own backyard!
Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/jaokant