Coral Reefs In Peril

For all of their natural beauty and rich biological diversity, the Earth's coral reefs face an uncertain future

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The Earth’s coral reefs are more than places of rich color and beauty. Like rain forests of the sea, the delicate ecosystems are home to a staggering number of plants, algae, coral, fish and mammalian life. Part of the threat to reef systems comes from the ruthless attack on apex predators like these reef sharks. Without apex predators, the system will collapse.

Healthy coral reefs are disappearing. In the fall of 2006, the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force met in the Virgin Islands, where researchers issued a warning that 30 percent of the world’s coral reef population had died in the last 50 years. Another 30 percent has suffered severe damage, and 60 percent could die in less than 25 years because of pollution and global warming.

These numbers have taken even marine scientists and researchers by surprise because they didn’t know how grim the situation had become for these rain forests under the sea. This year, the International Coral Reef Initiative has launched a worldwide campaign to raise awareness about the value and importance of coral reefs along with the threats they’re facing. So for underwater photographers who visually document the reefs, their work has taken on a new sense of urgency because the future looks so murky.

“The thing about coral reefs is that they’re these cities in the sea,” says David Doubilet, one of the world’s premier underwater photographers who has shot mainly for National Geographic since 1971. “Visually, they’re the most biologically diverse of any ecosystem on the planet. They have more color than any place in the world and soon there won’t be much left. These wonderful pictures aren’t just an exercise in showing an incredible ecosystem, but an effort to document a past time.”

Gone missing
Sweetlips congregate in a black coral tree in Raja Ampat.

Doubilet has explored the world over photographing freshwater ecosystems. When he began diving in the early ’70s, he took an unprecedented look at the Red Sea, producing a series of stories for the Geographic. He describes the reefs back then as pristine. Now, thanks to a steady increase in development, they’re devastated.

“When I began diving in 1971 on the Sinai, there were no boats, maybe one dive center, a hotel,” he recalls. “Now, there are 450 boats, 30 dive centers, 50 hotels. The impact on reef systems is devastating. In Indonesia, you can’t go back to the same reef and see the same things because the fish have to move around to survive.”

There are multiple culprits here, but there’s also widespread agreement in the scientific community that the root cause of the damage is human activity. Overfishing, pollution and coastal development are the chronic, insidious stressors that have overwhelmed the resiliency of many reef communities. Long-term, climate changes in the ocean and atmosphere have resulted in rising sea temperatures and carbon-dioxide levels. < A major consequence of climate change on the reefs is coral bleaching—the reef turns white because of a stress-induced breakdown in the symbiotic relationship between the corals and unicellular algae that live within its tissue and provide the reef’s coloration. A decade ago, a team of experts found that high sea-surface temperatures had affected almost all species of corals, resulting in unprecedented global coral bleaching and mortality. According to the International Coral Reef Initiative, about 46 percent of corals in the western Indian Ocean were heavily impacted or died.

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gone missing
Brilliantly colored nudibranchs scour reef systems around the world.

The most frequent cause of coral bleaching is the rising sea temperature. A prediction by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates a 2-degree Celsius temperature increase over the next 50 years, posing a severe threat, as already coral bleaching and die-off have reached extraordinary levels around the globe.

For a photographer, then, the mission becomes to find those reefs that are still healthy. Doubilet recently has worked in the Raja Ampat Islands off the northwestern tip of Indonesia’s West Papua Province. A 2002 survey by the Nature Conservancy and its partners confirmed that 537 species of corals live there, representing 75 percent of all known species. Overall, in Indonesia, more than 480 species of hard corals are on record, making it the center of marine biodiversity. Many of the reefs in eastern Indonesia haven’t been surveyed yet, so the actual extent of its biological richness is unknown.

For Eric Cheng, the editor and publisher of the underwater photography website, the damage done to many of the world’s great reefs has forced him to travel farther to see healthy ones. He spends much of his time in Indonesia as well.

“There are these incredibly dense and lush coral reefs with so much biodiversity that a lot of divers have started going there,” says Cheng, who started shooting underwater in 2001. “I feel like I was kind of robbed because when I started, the damage had already been done. I sense the urgency from my peers in terms of what’s going on, that if we don’t capture this stuff now, it really will be too late.”

gone missing
While it may appear to be visually stunning, this staghead coral shows signs of bleaching, indicating that death may be imminent.

Remarkably, shallow-water coral reefs make up an area that ranges from the size of Ecuador to Spain. In total, they account for less than one percent of the ocean floor, yet support an estimated 25 percent of marine life with more than 4,000 fish species alone. Reefs provide a home to more than 1 million aquatic life-forms, although the numbers on this aren’t certain because scientists have just started mapping marine biodiversity.

What is known, though, is that billions of dollars and millions of jobs are generated by coral reefs in more than 100 countries. They provide food for people who live near them, especially on small islands, and also act as natural barriers, protecting coastal communities and shorelines from erosion and destruction caused by storms and waves. According to a United Nations estimate, the total economic value of coral reefs ranges from $100,000 to $600,000 per square kilometer per year.


Their sheer natural beauty makes them a strong tourism draw. Photographically, these bright and exotic gems make for incredibly colorful and dramatic images that show a place few ever get to experience live. For photographers who make a living getting up close and personal with the creatures floating in and around these magical seascapes, the experience is powerful.

“On every dive, I know there’s a high likelihood that I’ll see something I’ve never seen before,” says Cheng. “Going down and having that feeling of being in a wild place that’s easy to destroy, but so hard to get to—it’s totally dark, but with lights becomes full of these amazing, bright colors. Seeing that, having the current sweep you through an area that’s more or less untouched. As you get closer, you see more and more of how all of the animals interact in this tiny space. On land, it’s harder to see that.”

Budd Riker has been diving and taking pictures for 30 years. The Philippines, Sipadan (an island off of Malaysia) and the Caribbean are some of his favorite spots. They’re also where he has witnessed firsthand the decline of the reefs. He says that efforts to preserve them are crucial because losing such a valuable natural resource is unimaginable to him.

“While it can be a frantic place with all of the marine life, it’s also a very calming place,” says Riker. “That in a square yard of turf there are literally hundreds of different things you can see is just so amazing. I do landscape photography, too, but there’s just nowhere else that you can take pictures like that in this vertical floating position. It’s just beautiful.”

Project AWARE’s 10 Tips For Underwater Photographers

1 Photograph with care. Dive carefully because many aquatic creatures are fragile regardless of size.

2 Dive neutral. Camera systems may add weight or be buoyant. Make sure to secure photo and dive equipment and be properly weighted to avoid contact with reefs or other vital habitat.

3 Resist temptation. Avoid touching, handling, feeding, chasing or riding aquatic life. Avoid altering an organism’s location to get the perfect shot.

4 Easy does it. Move slowly and deliberately through the water. Be patient.

5 Sharpen your skills. Make sure the difficulty of the dive and the environmental conditions are appropriate for current skills and comfort level.

6 Be informed. Be aware of local regulations and protocols regarding behavior around marine mammals and other species before entering the water.

7 Be an AWARE diver. Consider enrolling in an AWARE-Coral Reef Conservation, Project AWARE Specialty or Underwater Naturalist course to learn sustainable dive techniques and increase knowledge about the environment you’re photographing.

8 Take only pictures, leave only bubbles. Avoid souvenir collection. Nearly everything found in the aquatic realm is alive or will be used by a living creature. Removing specimens such as corals and shells can disturb the delicate balance and quickly deplete dive sites of both their resources and their beauty.

9 Share your images for conservation. Report environmental disturbances or destruction using your photographs as evidence.

10 Conserve the adventure. Join the Project AWARE Foundation, the dive industry’s leading nonprofit environmental organization. For more information, visit

For more information about the International Year of the Reef 2008, visit