Caribbean Coral Reefs Rebound

By Eric Robinson

On a recent snorkeling adventure in Punta Uva in the southern Caribbean region of Costa Rica, I had a pleasant surprise. It was great to see a tremendous regrowth in the coral reefs, that appeared all but dead only a few years ago on a previous snorkeling escapade. The banana industry took much of the blame. Silt, caused by the exuberant growth of water hyacinths from fertilizer run-off that washed into the ocean, killed much of the pristine coral reefs, bringing them to near collapse. The five year old government Eco-OK Program encourages banana producers to reduce their use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, send contaminated water through a special filtering system by expediting banana export red tape.

Many marine ecologists rightfully said that the coral reefs have taken literally centuries to grow to their present size, and now they were largely dead. This was true, but fortunately new coral growth is anchoring itself to and slowly hiding the dead and dying coral underneath and is rapidly appearing beautiful and full, with schools of small colored fish actively darting in and around. From what I can see, in little time the reefs on the southern Caribbean should appear healthy and vibrant.

In particular, hard corals are very evident, and are the most significant group of corals in terms of reef building. As the coral grows, the polyps secrete a massive external skeleton of calcium carbonate commonly known as limestone. I saw many boulder, mound and knob-shaped corals. This group is a dominant coral type on the reef and forms the basis of the outer coral reef structure in the Caribbean. Colonies show a variety of growth patterns including huge mountains, domes, boulders, multi-lobed heads or knobs. These corals include Porites asteroides, Montastrea, and Madracis.

The flat, wide Elk Horn coral and it’s relative, Anvil coral, are surviving and starting to regrow, while Brain corals are also retaking a hold. Brain corals have ridges and valleys on their surface which resemble the surface of a brain. The colonies are often hemispherical in shape. Brain corals include Colpophyllia natans and Diploria species.

Probably the most abundant of the new growth corals in the Punta Uva area seemed to be the Leaf and Plate-Shaped corals, completely mid-brown in color with white tips. These form fragile, thin, leaf-like colonies. They can be a dominant type on some shallow water reefs, which is where I was snorkeling just off the sandy shore. Some plate forms are also found in deeper waters. Example includes agaricia species and meandrites.

In conclusion, I highly recommend active visitors and tourists to check out the snorkeling opportunities in the newly beautified coral reefs just off the southern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica.

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