Coral reefs are probably the most amazing ecosystem that you can visit on the planet. Every year, millions of people travel to tropical locations for a chance to dive or snorkel in reefs, and to observe the overwhelming abundance and variety of fishes and interesting marine invertebrates. Coral reefs are valuable for their tourism, the food they provide, medicinal and chemical compounds, and so much more.
Coral reefs are one of our planet’s oldest, most diverse, most important, and vital ecosystems. Coral reefs cover only about 0.1% of the ocean floor, yet support over 25% of all marine life. There may be as many as 9 million different species of plants and animals living on reefs around the globe, and all of them could use our help.
That is why this year the New Heaven Reef Conservation Program is trying to promote November as a month to spread coral reef awareness. We believe that the more people know about coral reefs, the more they will respect and appreciate them. As people better understand the importance of reefs, they will become more aware of the threats facing them. The understanding of the ecosystem needs and problems is the mental seed that can grow into actions. As those seeds grow, society will become more conscious of our role and responsibility in the relationship between humans and nature.
“When one tugs at a single thing in nature he finds it attached to the rest of the world” – John MuiR
The fate of the ocean is the fate of all life on Earth. So join us in support of global reef awareness as we bring you updates on marine life, codes of conducts, threats to reefs, and feasible solutions. We hope to let people know why they should care about coral reefs, and also let them know what they can do to help them, Each day we will post new information on our facebook page. And update this article with the information for the day.
Please help by sharing things that you think are interesting or important, and do what you can do help promote awareness and protection of our planet’s coral reefs.
Many visitors to our island are unaware of what a coral actually is, some even think they are just colorful rocks. Actually the coral is an animal very closely related to jellyfish, and although the create large rock-like structures they are quite delicate. Find out more by downloading the full size poster on “What is a Coral Reef” and feel free to print it or share it with visitors to your local coral reef.
Thank you to Ploy Macintosh for the beautiful design!
According to published literature, there are 381 recorded species of fish in the Gulf of Thailand. So far, 203 of those have been observed on Koh Tao, which will rise to 224 with the publication of a paper we have recently submitted. According to a publication by Dr. Patrick Scaps (2006), “Koh Tao is the best study site in the Gulf of Thailand and contains 56% of the fish species described for the entire Gulf.”
We have never met a diver who didn’t love fish; swimming through a school of fusiliers or barracudas is an experience you remember for a lifetime. Each fish species is unique, and plays important, often quite interesting roles on the reef. Tell us what is your favorite fish, we will regularly post updates with information about a different fish species all month.
See some of our favorite fish on our Fish and Invertebrates Photo Gallery
Or learn more about the ecology of local reef fish in our learning resources page
Diving in coral reefs is not just about seeing all the interesting fish life; there is an estimated 9 million different species of animals living on coral reefs, and most of them belong to the group we call invertebrates. Invertebrates make up 34 of the 35 phyla of living animals, making up most of the animal life on earth. The corals themselves are a type of invertebrate, of the phylum called Cnidaria along with sea anemones and Jellyfish.
So although the fish tend to steal the spotlight, invertebrates play some of the most important and vital roles in marine ecosystems, and also have some of the most amazing evolutionary features. For example, the Mantis Shrimp has the best eye site in the animal kingdom and can punch through aquarium glass. Or the Nudibranchs, that prey on stinging or poisonous food and then use those weapons against their own potential predators.
Follow along as we bring you up through the evolutionary chain with updates on some of our favorite invertebrate species, and learn some facts about the amazing animals that call coral reefs their home.
2nd chapter of our Month of Awareness 2013 Poster : Why do we need to protect coral reefs? After you learn about what really a coral reef is, you will learn further about why coral reefs are important to you and all of us. Just like many people said ‘Healthy Coral Reefs = Healthy World”. Coral reef ecosystem is like a big city. Imagine if you crash a building in a big city, it affects people who live in that building also people who come in and going. Same thing for coral reef that you don’t only kill corals but it will effect marine inhabitants that evolve around the reef. Download the full resolution poster here.
The Starry Pufferfish (Arothron stellatus) is one of the largest species of pufferfish, growing up to 120cm in length. Their skin (which does not have scales) is covered with black spots, which start off very large in juveniles, and become much smaller on the adults. Most likely, the spots help them to blend in with the sandy environments which they frequently inhabit. Their beak like mouth, with two large upper and lower teeth, is used to feed on sponges, corals, mollusks, and other benthic invertebrates.
As in this photo, they seem to frequent our coral nurseries where there is plenty for them to snack on. Although they have few predators, they do have the ability, like other pufferfish, to inflate their body over twice its normal size. What is really impressive about this species is that they are actually poisonous; secreting chemical called Tetrodotoxin, which causes nerve cells to shut down. Find out more about the reef fish of Koh Tao on our Learning Resources page and follow along all month as we bring you information and facts on different species of reef fish.
The Bent Stick Pipefish (Trachyrhamphus bicoarctatus) is one of 200 species of pipefish belonging to the family Syngnathidae (a relative of the seahorses). This particular pipefish inhabits sandy or reef areas from very shallow, to more than 40m. They feed on zooplankton that floats by in the water, and must be quite affective at doing so, as some can reach lengths over 40cm.
Although they are currently not valued highly for trade, they are often caught as by-catch in trawling fisheries operations. Trawling is a very destructive type of fishing, which completely destroys the marine environments in search of benthic animals like shrimps, lobster, and flounders. On Koh Tao there is a 3 km wide perimeter from the island in which trawling is not allowed.
You can help by reducing your consumption of seafood, and buying only seafood which is caught or raised sustainably.
Active Coral Restoration is projects whereby time, energy, and resources are devoted to directly increasing the coral reef health, abundance, or biodiversity. The most common objectives of active restoration are to restore habitat and corals which have been lost, or improve reef resilience to mitigate future disturbances.
There are many methods and techniques of coral restoration available to community based reef managers, many of which are cheap and easy to construct or maintain. But, the science behind coral conservation and restoration is relatively new, and these techniques are constantly being improved. In the case of community managers, each community or region will find that different techniques or materials are more efficient for them, and adapting the techniques is essential for local success.
Restoration is not a substitute for protection, but it is a vital tool in the race to protect reefs and encourage the sustainable use of marine resources. Learn more about the different techniques and types of restoration in our Learning Resource page.
(The photo at right shows 2.5 years of coral growth on the Pyramid Structure at the Suan Olan Site, deployed by the DMCR and maintained by the NHRCP)
The barrel sponge is a conspicuous feature of the coral reef, which provides habitat to small fish, gastropods, and sea cucumbers. Sponges are the simplest phylum of multi-celled animals, lacking a nervous or digestive system and having no tissues or organs. What we know as a sponge is actually a colony of many different cell types and species that all function together to make one organism, and today over 10,000 species of sponges have been classified. Some cells in the sponge provide structure, other pump water ad collect food, and some create toxins for defense. Although some species do reproduce sexually, any broken off piece of a sponge can grow into a whole new colony, called asexual propagation.
In addition to providing structure and binding the reef together, sponges are giant water filters, and are important in maintaining water quality in coral reefs. Some sponges will disappear from an area when water quality declines, while other species will start to proliferate in the same situation. By monitoring the changes in sponge populations, scientists can better track changes in water quality and the subsequent effects on the marine ecosystems.
The Devil Scorpionfish (Inimicus didactylus) is not a true Scorpionfish, but actually part of the family of fishes known as Syanceiidae, along with the stonefish. They are a group of extremely venomous fish, which are difficult to spot as they are very well camouflaged against the reefs where they feed (the one in this photo is a juvenile).
They are ambush predators, who quietly make themselves unseen while they stalk their prey or wait for an unsuspecting animal to wander by. Then, they move lightening quick, expanding their mouth with a spring loaded jaw. This expansion increases the volume of their mouth by over 300%, creating a strong water current that sucks in their prey. It all happens so fast that the only way to see it is on high-speed video.
These fish are something divers are proud to spot, and can make for interesting photographic subjects as they are one of the few fish that won’t run away from you. They are also one more reason not contact the reef or walk on the seabed, as a sting from one of the back spines of the fish is mostly lethal, or leaves the victim with years of pain and nervous system difficulties.
Nudibranchs such as the two photographed here (Phidiana indica) are a very diverse group of marine gastropods, with over 3,000 described species. When people describe the coral reef as an alien world, these must be the aliens they are referring to. Nudibranchs are related to snails, except that they shed their shells after the larvae stage and instead find other means of protection. All species of nudibranchs are carnivorous, and feed on sponges, corals, hydroids, and even other nudibranchs. Often times they feed on poisonous or stinging prey, and instead of digesting the preys defensive properties they integrate them into their special skin, called a mantle.
Nudibranchs are the most colorful and ornate group of animals on the planet, exhibiting a wide range of physiologies and colors between species, which can often be locally varied as well. Some use color for camouflage or mimicking other reef animals, and some use color in the same way as tree frogs – to advertise their toxicity.
There are about 93 species of nudibranchs officially listed for Thailand, and our recent work has found over 52 species on Koh Tao (which we hope to add to over time). No matter where in the world you dive, nudibranchs can be one of the highlights of your visit to the coral reefs or the muck diving environments where they commonly inhabit.
The beautiful flatworms of the coral reef belong to the class called Turbellaria of the phylum Platyhelminthes. This group is relatively simple in terms of biology, but a very complex in terms of ecology. The flatworm has no internal organ or circulatory structures, and thus relies on diffusion to convey nutrients and waste between cells. Their digestive cavity has just one opening for food to enter and waste to exit. Their bi-lateral symmetry and primitive central nervous system is thought to be ancestral to higher class of animals, as these worms evolved a very long time ago.
Ecologically however the worms are very complex, with over 4,500 species. Flatworms feed on a variety of prey including hydroids, sponges, corals, bivalves, and algae. Flatworms practice a bizarre reproductive strategy called penis fencing, in which the less dominating of the two hermaphroditic worms ends up having to care for the eggs. Strangely enough, it has also recently been found that flatworms can occasionally reproduce asexually when a new flatworm can grow from the fragment of a ‘mother’ worm. Amazingly, the body section of a flatworm fragment can grow a new head!
Flatworms are an important indicator of reef biodiversity and water quality. There are many amazing and unique species of flatworms out there for divers and underwater photographers to enjoy, and they are often one of the highlights during our seahorse surveys.
The Marbled Snake Eel (Callechelys marmorata) was not officially recorded for Koh Tao or the Gulf of Thailand until 2013 (Scaps and Scott, In Review). Snake eels are part of the family Ophichthidae (“serpent fish”), and can be found in sandy or muddy areas between 1m and 40 m depth; as in Ao Leuk, Chalok Ban Kao, and Mango Bay. Although they can grow to more than 80 cm in length, usually they will be observed with just their head protruding from the sand. Snake eels feed at night, primarily on crustaceans such as shrimp and crabs, but will also take advantage of small fish that pass by. It is a rare sighting for the Gulf of Thailand, and something special to add to your list of things to see while on Koh Tao.
Batfish are a social and peaceful species of fish belonging to the family called Ephippidae. They are an omnivorous fish, that feeds mostly on algae and small invertebrates. They can often be found at large submerged pinnacles, or especially at our artificial reefs and coral nurseries, which they seem to make a perfect habitat for them. They are a favorite sighting by divers, as they can often be quite playful, but did you know that they are also a vital species to the coral reef?
A study led by Dr. David Bellwood of JCU found that batfish (Platax pinnatus) on the Great Barrier Reef were more effective at removing algae than 41 other species of local fish, including parrot and rabbitfish. Batfish are vital in the regrowth of coral reefs after successive bleaching like what is being experienced around the globe due to climate change. Unfortunately these large fish are also thought to be a victim of over-fishing. So do your part in reducing your consumption of seafood and purchasing only sustainably fished species.
Soft corals such as this member of the genus Scleronephthya are a colorful and conspicuous feature of the deep reefs and ‘muck diving’ environments of Koh Tao. They come in a range of florescent colors including blue, purple, orange, yellow, and red. They can grow as much as 2 meters tall in some locations, and are provide habitat for a wide range of invertebrates and fish. In some sandy areas, soft corals may be the only available structure, and thus will attract many interesting and unique creatures. Most of the corals are azooxanthellate, meaning they do not have symbiotic algae living inside their tissues, although some do.
In the day time they are mostly restricted, and appear as small colorful lumps, but at dusk or on cloudy days they will pull water into their bodies to expand to full size. For many filter feeders on the reef, the night time is the best time to feed as zooplankton in the water follows a pattern known as diurnal migration, in which they swim to the surface waters at night and take refuge in the deeps during the day. When diving, be sure to have a close look around any soft corals you find to see what types of symbiotic organisms are living on or around them. But also be sure to maintain your buoyancy and self awareness skills as soft corals are very fragile and easily dislodged.
Cleaner shrimp play a fascinating and important role on the coral reef. Shrimps such as these, from the genus Urocaridella, live in groups under rock overhangs and caves, where fish will know to find them. When a fish comes near the cave, the shrimp will advertise their cleaning station by dancing with a back and forth rocking motion. If the potential client decides to come into the cleaning station, the shrimp will then crawl over its body, removing ecotoparasites, and even entering the mouth of the fish to clean there as well. Studies have shown that repeat customers get preferred treatment, and that cleaning stations who ‘cheat’ lose their customer base.
These shrimp have been a big help in our Sea Turtle Head-starting Program, reducing the amount of time we need to spend cleaning the turtles and also helping to remove infections.
Cleaning stations are a great place to learn about or contemplate upon evolutionary ecology and the complex symbiotic relationships between animals. Once we start to investigate ecological relationships between different forms of life we start to realize a truth in nature – that every organism is important to the function of the whole ecosystem, in this way all life on earth is intrinsically connected and interdependent. From the tiniest clear shrimps to the largest animal on earth, we are all one.