Exploring the mysteries of Cuba’s coral reefs

Lessons that scientists learn here could help them safeguard other such ‘animal forests’

Cuban corals

PLAYA LARGA, Cuba — The Bay of Pigs is surprisingly clear and vividly blue — nothing like its name might suggest. Cuba’s famous bay looks like an artist’s palette — one that stretches toward the horizon. There’s a streak of robin’s-egg blue by the rocky shore. Further out, the water turns turquoise, then navy blue where the seafloor drops down to meet the deeper ocean.

Beneath the surface, bright bursts of other colors come into view. Even in 10 meters (about 33 feet) of water, you can see hills on the sandy bottom. Look closer and you can see that each hill is a clump of fanciful structures in greens, browns, oranges and purples. They resemble piles of boulders topped by tubes, antlers, bushes and fans. They’re coral reefs, or stony ridges made from the external skeletons of millions of tiny marine creatures living together. Fittingly, some scientists call them “animal forests.”

Many of these animal forests around the world are in big trouble. People have harmed some by carelessly climbing on the corals or by catching too many of the fish that keep reefs healthy. Diseases, global warming and fierce storms have battered other reefs. Scientists are especially worried about Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Unusually warm water there in 2016 killed large sections of the connected corals.

Recent research suggests that pollution and warmer waters have raised the risk of mass die-offs in other tropical reefs. Such threats can leave huge dead zones in the water and turn corals a ghostly white. One recent study found that corals off the coast of Panama had been badly damaged within the past decade.

Other researchers have been noting more gradual changes that have taken place over centuries. To do this, they pored over old sailing charts. These charts had warned sailors about the locations of reefs to help prevent shipwrecks.

Looking at those charts now  suggests that the island chain making up the Florida Keys has lost more than half of its corals during the past 240 years. Reefs closest to shore have suffered most.

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