Underwater Travel: Prepare to be Astounded
Underwater Travel: coral reefs, wildlife and more!
With so many beautiful cities across the globe to explore, and a world of cultures to learn about, it may at first seem odd to focus your travels on what lies beneath the surface of the sea rather than what’s up above the waterline… However, from a natural history point of view, there are few ecosystems more exciting to be immersed in than the tropical coral reef! Even the least nature-inspired among us can’t help but be amazed at the diversity of life and colour found on coral reefs: all you need to do is submerge your head beneath the surface of the water and look around…
What are coral reefs exactly?
Coral reefs are among the largest structures created by any animal! Each reef is an underwater rocky structure made of calcium carbonate that was secreted by a colony of tiny organisms, called coral polyps. These minute creatures, very much like tiny sea jellies anchored upside down on their heads, feed on particles in the water using their tentacles, and gain protection by pulling inside the reef that they have created, when danger arises.
But the key to the coral reef, the sole reason they are such productive places, is the relationship between the coral polyps and a near-microscopic alga that lives in their tissue. This relationship (called a mutualism because both partners gain from the relationship) works like this: the alga creates food energy through photosynthesis, which is shared with the coral polyps. In turn, the polyps provide a substrate in which the alga can live. The two together bring tremendous resources to a patch of ocean that would otherwise be quite nutrient poor!
Where can I find the best coral reefs?
Though the Caribbean, Seychelles and Maldives all have fantastic reefs and are often visited by snorkelers and SCUBA divers, the most diverse region in the world for coral reefs and their associated marine life is actually a roughly triangular area of the waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, and the Solomon Islands. This area is defined by having a staggering diversity: at least 500 species of reef-building corals!
But wherever you go, as long as you take the time to get in the water and have a look, you will see amazing things at every turn. Anemonefish, straight out of the movie Finding Nemo, hide in the protection of the stinging tentacles of sea anemones, having incredibly evolved a resistance the anemone’s weaponry.
Hawkfish perch out in the open like their namesake bird of prey, waiting for small unsuspecting fish to pass close by.
Huge bumphead parrotfish patrol the reef edge, using their parrot-like beak to actually grind up and ingest the rocky reef itself, taking nutriment from the tiny alga found in the bodies of the miniscule coral polyps.
Pay attention to small things!
Though the fish never cease to entertain, don’t overlook the small stuff, or the creatures that don’t even move at all. Look for tunicates, brightly-coloured marine invertebrates that sit attached to the reef, where they pump water through their vase-shaped bodies to feed upon the particles suspended in the water (see photo above).
Slugs of various shapes and colours meander their way around the reef, advertising to potential predators that their bodies are toxic with bright warning coloration.
And nocturnal creatures like octopus on occasion slip out of their hiding places during the day, changing colour instantly to camouflage to their surroundings. The octopus in the photo above seems to be confused and thinks its surroundings are darker than they actually are…
I hope this post and these photos will inspire you to discover the incredible, stunning underwater world!
When you are plotting your next travel adventure, do consider a place where you can add an underwater component to the trip. After exploring the 18th century sugar plantation ruins and hiking through the lush tropical forest on some Caribbean Island, don your mask and snorkel to watch damselfish defending patches of their favourite food, filamentous algae. Or watch parrots fly overhead while sipping fresh coconut water in remote villages in Papua New Guinea, and then slip into the water to watch cleaner wrasse pick parasites off of huge predatory grouper.
The coral reef is one of the great natural wonders of our planet – get in the water!