There are two major coral reef regions in the world, the Caribbean and the Indo-Pacific. Coral reefs are an integral part of the Caribbean, winding along thousands of kilometres of coastlines.
[Tap and drag to look around the reef]
Each year, 25 million tourists visit the Caribbean, and many of them come to enjoy the coral reefs. Let's visit some of our favourite locations.
We'll start off in Bonaire, an island nation just north of Venezuela.
Coral Reef Regions
The Caribbean region of coral reefs has been separated from the Indo-Pacific for about three million years. Without connection to other coral reefs outside the Caribbean basin, many corals here evolved to be unique, although the diversity level is lower.
Bonaire is thought to have some of the Caribbean’s best coral reefs. Their marine ecosystems are protected under the Bonaire National Marine Park, dating to 1979. You’ll find all types of corals and sponges here, like these purple tube sponges.
If you look closely, you'll be able to spot many of these bright orange sponges. They are a common feature around this location and provide a striking pop of color amongst the reef.
Stretching over 1,000 kilometres (620 miles), the Mesoamerican Reef is the second largest barrier reef in the world. (The largest is Australia's Great Barrier Reef.) It lies along the coastlines of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.
Belize and its barrier reef lie within the heart of the Caribbean's marine biodiversity. As you travel farther away from this epicentre, biodiversity gradually decreases.
Belize World Heritage
The Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System lies at the heart of the Mesoamerican Reef, and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The reef here provides habitat for a diverse array of coral, sponges and other marine creatures, like this filefish.
For the next stop, we'll travel up the west coast of the Caribbean Sea to Mexico's largest island, Cozumel. Cozumel is on the northern end of the Mesoamerican Reef, the largest barrier reef system in the Western Hemisphere, and 2nd largest in the world.
This reef is home to many species, including some threatened species of turtles.
The largest of all the hard-backed turtles, Loggerhead Turtles can reach 1 metre (3 feet) in length, and are named for their large heads and strong jaws.
Loggerhead turtles can swim at speeds of up to 24 kilometres (15 miles) per hour and they undertake incredibly long migrations. Their enormous range encompasses all of the world's oceans except the colder waters near the poles.
The M.S. Antilla was a German ship with a very short lifespan. She began her maiden voyage from Germany in July 1939 and was in the Caribbean when the events of World War II began to unfold.
She anchored at Aruba (a Dutch island), which was a neutral port until Germany invaded the Netherlands in May 1940. The crew aboard the Antilla sabotaged their own ship rather than surrender her to the enemy.
At 120 metres (400 feet) long, the Antilla is one of the largest shipwrecks in the Caribbean. It lies in the sand at 18 metres (60 feet) depth, and is only a short distance from land.
Over the decades since it sank to the ocean floor, the shipwreck has become covered in corals and sponges, creating a new artificial reef for the local marine life. As a result, it’s very popular with snorkelers and scuba divers.
Our next destination is actually slightly north of the Caribbean Sea, but is still considered part of the Caribbean—the coral reefs of Conception Reserve in the Bahamas. Coral reefs are hugely important ecosystems in the Caribbean.
They provide food and livelihoods to millions of people, buffer shorelines against storms, and form the foundation of the tourism industry. Some areas, like at Conception Reserve, have been set aside as marine protected areas to preserve the ecosystem.
Coral Reef Loss
Since the 1970s, Caribbean coral reef habitats as a whole have declined by 50%. Experts say this trend will continue if nothing is done, which is a motivating reason to create more marine protected areas.
Grazing fish, like this parrotfish, play an important role in coral reef ecosystems, by eating algae. Algae thrives in the same tropical conditions as corals, but grows much faster and can smother coral. Grazing fish keep the reef in balance.
Unfortunately, populations of parrotfish and other grazing fish have declined due to overfishing and this removal of vital species is having a dramatic effect on Caribbean coral reefs.
Let's meet the Lionfish. It’s a beautiful and bizarre-looking fish that has been causing trouble in the Caribbean. With their red & white zebra stripes, and their long feather-like fins, Lionfish are sending out a strong signal not to get in their way.
And for good reason—these fish are covered in highly venomous spines that can cause extreme pain and even paralysis. Luckily these fish are not aggressive towards people.
Native to the Indo-Pacific, the Lionfish has been an unwelcome intruder to Caribbean reefs in recent years. No one is sure exactly how they got here, but they are certainly having an impact on the Caribbean ecosystems.
Lionfish become sexually mature in less than a year and a single female can spawn over two million eggs each year. They have no native predators in the Caribbean and so they have proliferated rapidly and are wreaking havoc.
These good-looking fish have a dark voracious side. They consume vast amounts of juvenile native fish, and are upsetting the natural balance of the local ecosystems.
Mayreau Hot Springs
We'll head over to the southern Caribbean nation of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines next and see what colorful critters we can find. The Caribbean is home to between 500 to 700 different species of reef fish. The majority of fish found on coral reefs are very brightly colored.
Their coloration could help to communicate with other fish, entice mates, threaten foes, or evade predators by blending into their surroundings.
These bright blue fish are Creole Wrasse. Like a few other creatures on the reef, these fish can change gender as they age! They start off as females, but when they reach a certain size they can transform into males.
Schools of Fish
Small reef fish like these stay together for protection. As a group there are more eyes looking out for danger. Groups are also more efficient at swimming and finding food.
AXA XL, The University of Queensland, Google, Panedia, Fourth Element