Chapter One: Aquarium Corals

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Reef Worlds

Beauty, Biodiversity, and Scientific Wonders of the Coral Realm

By Eric H. Borneman

"Some of my best memories are of the times spent drifting aimlessly over Acropora thickets in the Caribbean.

Twenty-five years ago there was hardly an area in the West Indies where one couldn’t take a mask and fins and paddle off a beach and see vast fields of staghorn coral, A. cervicornis, brimming with wild-colored reef fishes zipping in and out of a profusion of branches.

Before arriving there, one necessarily swam over beds of turtle grass with countless conch gliding along the sandy substrate. Often, the water would become quite shallow, and vast fields of Diadema urchins would wave their spines menacingly below.

On one memorable day off a northwestern beach in Barbados, I found patch reefs rising haphazardly out to 152 or 182 m (50 or 60 ft.) of water. A storm had kicked the waves up from the night before, and the water was still surging quite a bit. As I swam in the shallows among the Diadema and Acropora fields, each wave would periodically lift and then drop me several feet.

In the trough of the wave, the bottom would appear to come up suddenly, and the spines of the urchins came uncomfortably close. At one point, I realized I had to breathe shallowly and suck in my stomach, lest the spines actually find my skin. I quickly and carefully kicked around the staghorn thickets to deeper water, against the surging waves, to find myself, once again, in safer depths to enjoy the beauty of these reefs.

Such encounters were once common off many islands, but today they are increasingly rare. Mass mortalities of both Acropora and Diadema have occurred since I first began my explorations of coral reefs in Jamaica, Barbados, and elsewhere in the Caribbean.

The conchs have become a threatened species in many areas. Today, I look with a great deal of wistfulness at the shelves of conch shells, urchin tests, and Acropora branches that I gathered for my private collections. Now I regret those lives I took as souvenirs. At the time, no one foresaw what would happen. I now use their presence as a reminder of the ecological change that can happen in the blink of an eye.

As a marine aquarist, I believe that understanding the biological complexity and some of the modern-day realities of coral reefs adds an important dimension to our keeping of captive corals. There is, in fact, a tangible link between our aquariums and the far-flung tropical reefs of the world, and anyone who undertakes the keeping of live corals is inevitably drawn into learning more about one of the most awe-inspiring environments in the world...."

From Chapter One of Aquarium Corals