When you think of underwater landscapes you see textures and colors that belong in fairytales, but it is not a figment of your imagination. Those landscapes are the amazing ecosystems that live just below the surface of the ocean, and only 95% have been explored.
Earth’s tropical waters are full of reef builders, generally called corals, that grow in various colors and sizes. Most of us perceive their amazing colors and patterns as rocks or plants but they are actually microscopic organisms living in colonies, providing an amazing visual display thru their pigments and clear polyps.
There are two main types of corals; hard and soft. Hard corals build reefs by creating calcium deposits while soft corals are seen dancing with the movement of the waves. Around Puerto Rico you can see both types growing near the shore.
In Vieques we are lucky enough to have some very healthy colonies of hard and soft corals that we can see when we jump in the water, including Elkhorn and Staghorn, two species of coral which were recently added to the Threatened Coral Species list. If you visit Mosquito Pier and peek into the water you will be able to see a large colony of Elkhorn coral just under the surface, while just a short boat ride from Punta Arenas we have amazing Staghorn colonies that span over 200’ in length!
As the name suggests, this is one of those corals you want to avoid. The name is misleading as they are actually closer to jellyfish than corals. They have many growth patterns but are easy to spot with their mustard yellow color. Fire coral has a hard surface that can scrape the skin and small hairs that actually cause the sting. They are easy to spot from a distance so are avoidable. If you accidentally brush against one, thoroughly rinse and wash the area with mild soap. Soaking the skin in white vinegar works wonders. Keep an eye on the area, redness and itching/burning is expected. If you are concerned about the affected area, contact your doctor.
Because we have these amazing ecosystems around us it is very important that we take care of our environment and our ecosystems. If we want to keep corals around for future generations to enjoy we must remember these simple rules.
- Don’t step on the corals. Colonies are very delicate and do not react well to pressure and blunt trauma.
- Use reef-safe products. Some products we use for personal care (like sunscreen) are actually filled with chemicals that affect the reef. Using a sun protective rashguard will protect you and the reef.
- Get proper equipment. Make sure your equipment fits correctly and you are comfortable before heading out over reefs. If you need some assistance floating use a snorkeling vest or a flotation device.
- Learn proper snorkeling techniques. If you haven’t been snorkeling before or have limited experience take part in a tour or snorkel class.
- Pickup after yourself. We all enjoy taking drinks and snacks on our beach outings. Let’s just make sure we leave the beaches cleaner than we found them.
- Spread the word. Teach family and friends about corals and how to best appreciate them. The more people know, the less negative impact on the environment.
- Take only pictures. Everything underwater gets reused and becomes shelter for something else.