What is coral bleaching? Why does it happen?

What is coral bleaching? Why does it happen?

coral bleaching
 Image credit: Wikipedia via CC license

Coral bleaching, the phenomenon, the event that has brought scientists from all around the world together to discuss a single question- what is happening to our coral? Climate change skeptics and environmental downfall contributors have no other option than to acknowledge the reality of this current mass global issue.

An event that has been trending and turning heads from all over, even reaching world news. It has made its way to fame and has quickly gotten the attention of the human race- but do you really know what coral bleaching is?

So what is coral?

Looking at coral from its outward appearance, it can be disguised as a simple being that has no other purpose than for fish to inhabit and feed on. Some even mimic a rock substance. It is only when you look within that you realize that it is not a simple being at all.

bleached coral

Coral colonies are made up of tiny, yet extraordinary polyps that resemble sea anemones. An algae called Zooxanthellae, or Zoox,  benefits the coral by living inside the polyps and photosynthesizing. This provides the necessary nutrition a coral needs to be able to be, well, coral.

Benefits of coral

Scientists are fascinated with the advantages that coral provides. In reality, these ancient and complex animals are what millions depend on for their survival. Some benefits of the reef include protection from tropical storms and waves. Also tourism, food, habitat and protection for many marine species, and even medicine. Imagine what would happen if we were to lose all of this due to the recklessness of our own generation? Well, the truth is that we already are on our way to doing so.

Our environment is sufferering

When you take a step back from the normality that our society has been convinced is sufficient and ideal, you will be shocked. As humans we have developed this hunger for more. We can’t get enough whether its money, power, food, clothes, etc. Then we are basing these needs off the idea that we will never run out, thus mass producing. It is only when we wake up from this false mentality that we can see what we are doing to our planet. The environment has been silently suffering from our carelessness for a long time. But it is finally grabbing our attention through natural disasters such coral bleaching. 

a bleached coral reef
Coral bleaching at Molokini Crater

Our carbon pollution is affecting our climate worldwide, especially our oceans. With life as fragile as coral, the rising temperature of only a few degrees can dramatically alter their ability to function. This can almost certainly lead to fatality, or otherwise known as bleaching. Car pollution, factory pollution, mining and burning of coal, and other destructive actions of man are collectively working together to kill coral reefs by stressing them out.

Like humans who react to fevers, the coral reacts to heat by expelling the zooxanthellae. The disruption of the zoox and coral relationship causes the coral to starve. This is due to the lack of nutrients obtained through photosynthesis. They then turn the color white we so famously see, giving it the name “bleaching”. Although most believe that a coral is dead once it has turned this holy white, it is actually still alive. It has the potential to recover. It is only once the tissue is extracted and rotting from the coral that it is officially too late. 

Other factors like overfishing, pollution, and sunscreen, work as a team to cause coral bleaching on our coral reefs. If we continue to go down this wasteful and harmful path, we will only increase the severity of coral bleaching. A species that has survived for centuries is now depleting in only a few years due to the intensity of our ways. It can take decades for a reef to recover and less than a decade to destroy it. If we continue our mass burning of fossil fuels and increase our carbon pollution in the atmosphere, these severe bleaching events will continue annually. Coral is vital to life on Earth and the mass bleaching events are a cry for help. It is now up to us to ensure that the coral reefs are not gone for good.

So what can you do?

A few ways to help save our reefs and our planet:

Transportation (biking, walking, bus)

Reef Safe Sunscreen

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Speak Up

Reduce Runoff in our oceans

Eat sustainably

Keep feet/fins off of the reef 

Meet team member JD

Meet team member JD

JD marine biologist costa rica

With the business of the holiday season behind us now, we here at Marine Conservation Costa Rica have hit the ground running as we dive into 2020 with plenty of plans to continue our coral restoration work. One of the biggest shifts that we have seen as we enter this new year is our overall increase in both intern and volunteer activity. Especially with the addition of our newest staff member, JD.

This “crazy coral kid” will be working with us through September and has already brought a bunch of new ideas and positive changes to our organization. We decided to sit down with JD the other day to catch up with him and learn a bit more about his background with marine science/coral conservation. 

Happy underwater with the coral

Hi JD!

“Growing up I was always obsessed with the ocean. The running joke with the family is that if a trip wasn’t close to the beach or didn’t have an aquarium that I could visit, I didn’t want to go and would make it extremely well-known. I always thought corals were cool but never really took the time to appreciate them.

In fact, it wasn’t until a travel course to Belize that focused on coral biology during my junior year of college where I actually realized how truly fascinating these tiny animals are and the numerous roles they place for both us as human beings as well as the countless marine animals we all love so much. Everyone was excited to swim with sharks, rays, and turtles while I was too busy focusing on getting up close and personal with every single polyp that called the waters of Ambergris Caye their home.

As tacky as it sounds, every time I dive and get to see healthy coral in its natural habitat I get this feeling of pure happiness, almost like I’m a kid again walking into an aquarium and falling in love with the ocean for the very first time. I really want to make sure everyone has the chance to experience that too.’’

– JD Reinbott

Q: What is your background with marine science/coral biology? 

cutting coral with marine conservation costa rica

I studied Marine Science as well as Aquaculture/Aquarium Science at the University of New England in Biddeford, ME and to be totally honest bounced around within the field itself. I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to focus on post graduation and was scared to make the wrong choice. It wasn’t until I randomly enrolled in a coral biology course with a field work trip to Belize where I quickly fell head over heels for coral and realized this is where I belong.

Shortly after the trip I became a certified diver and found myself traveling down to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve where I lived on a remote dive base for two months. During that time I collected metrics on things like coral population abundance, disease, bleaching, predation and overall reef composition.

This only furthered my passion for reef systems and made me want to learn more. Fast forward a year and I was now an intern at the Coral Restoration Foundation, the world’s largest coral restoration non-profit organization.

During my time I learned the various methods used to cultivate acroporid corals via in-situ nurseries and worked alongside the heads of both the restoration and science departments. It’s pretty cool to be able to say that I returned over 1,500 coral fragments back to the Florida Reef Tract during my time with CRF. Soon after I heard about the chance to move to Costa Rica and just like that I’m here! 

Q: What is your role with MCCR? 

I love coral

I would say that my primary role is to help Kat and Geo continue all the work that we are currently doing (growing coral, nursery maintenance, public outreach, underwater cleanups, etc). Also playing around with a bunch of new ideas to further expand our programs. With MCCR being so new, there is a lot of wiggle room within the organization itself. This subsequently means that no day is the same. Sometimes I’m on land figuring out new ways to compile all of our data and microfragging corals. Other days I’m building new nursery structures and creating new educational presentations.

When I throw on a BCD and a pair of fins it’s a bit of a different story. Water days can consist of anything from harvesting coral to installing new structures to scoping out new nursery locations. It could also be performing benthic reef surveys. If there is ever a day someone finds me without a coral frag in my hand, it’s probably a day where I’m working as an instructor with Oceans Unlimited Scuba Diving & Go Pro Costa Rica. The Pura Vida lifestyle has been a bit of an adjustment with just a few things to do but I love every moment of it. 

Q: What are you most excited about? 

Honestly just to get the chance to watch this new organization develop further and to also bring all of my previous coral restoration knowledge and experience to help with such expansion. Getting to look back at everything that we have accomplished a year from now is going to be such an amazing experience and I cannot wait to see what is to come. Also getting to dive in a new ocean and work with new species of coral sounds pretty cool too. 

Q: What is your favorite marine animal? 

For anyone who knows me, this answer is a given. 110% an octopus. They are literally the strangest creatures that I have ever seen underwater and yet also the most unique and eye-catching (that is if you are lucky enough to spot them). Every single time I see one underwater, I audibly scream out of pure joy. I will only continue to swim when my dive buddy comes over and begrudgingly drags me away (literally ask anyone who has ever gone diving with me if you don’t believe me).

scuba diving in costa rica

I would honestly just love to see what happens on a day to day basis within their lives, but also the one thing that always gets me is the fact that they HAVE EIGHT ARMS. LIKE COME ON HOW COOL IS THAT YOU COULD EAT AN ENTIRE PIZZA AT ONCE. 

Octopus Ecology program

Octopus Ecology program

octopus ecology course

What an exciting start to 2020! We are bringing out a new scuba diving program for our interns and volunteers and it is all about one of our favorite critters here on the reef. The Octopus. The program is called Octopus Ecology and with it you will learn all about them.

The octopus is one of the most interesting creatures here on the reef. The are very often considered to be one of the most intelligent creatures of all invertebrates. They have three hearts and all of their tentacles have a mind of their own. That is three quick facts that are amazing.

During the program the following themes are covered;

the morphology of Octopus and the roles of them within the ecosystem. We also look at where to find Octopus on the reef and how do Octopus behave as well as learning how they feed and reproduce.

Finally we look at their conservation status and what species we can find locally as well as how we record and observe them. This is then followed by two dives on the reef observing and recording any data we have on them.

octopus at night swimming

So, want to learn more? Then maybe you should sign up for our program. It is available as part of our Marine conservation internships and volunteer programs. It will be taught by our MCCR instructors and includes 2 dives out on the reef looking at Octopus habitats and behavior.

If you want to join us on this exciting program then contact us here.

Community Eco-Art in Quepos!

Community Eco-Art in Quepos!

We recently joined forces with a awesome bunch of  like-minded environmentally conscious folk in Quepos. Together we built this beautiful Sailfish made of reused plastic bottles. The entire construction process took more than 180 hours, so working over 15 days. The sculpture consists of over 3500 bottles, 3000 caps, and is an impressive 13 meter in length and weighs 200 kilos.

Assembling the bottles

All this plastic for the art project was collected from our region around Quepos. Much of it is recyclable plastic…however, did you know that plastic cannot be recycled in Costa Rica? In fact, Costa Rica only has the capacity to recycle glass.

plastic bottle sculpting

All other collected recyclables like plastic, aluminum and paper, have to be exported for recycling with current figures showing that only 9% of plastic collected for recycling is actually recycled. Much of our recycling ends up in landfills in far corners of the globe or burnt, so releasing toxic gases.
This is why recycling is no longer the solution for our plastic world..we find alternatives to plastics.

REDUCE, REUSE and REFUSE!

Sailfish sculpture Marina Pez Vela


This beautiful sailfish represents a hope for the future of Quepos. Many hands joined together to make it a reality, working together under the blazing sun and the occasional rain storm. Art projects like this are a way to reuse plastics and raise awareness of the plastic problem. Thank you to the Comite Ambiental de Quepos and to the artist, Alban Corrales for letting us work on this amazing project.

plastic reuse

Pura Vida!

Kat

8 Fun facts about Coral

8 Fun facts about Coral

Coral in Costa Rica

Coral reefs are referred to as the underwater cities of our planet. Diverse species collect and congest the underwater habitat. This gives them an appearance of hectic yet systematic city traffic. Warm-water fish and other marine species gather throughout the ecosystem due to their dependency.

This mass collection of colorful marine life allows many curious visitors to experience such beautiful and natural entertainment. Although when coral reefs are brought up for discussion, we tend to think of this tropical climate only a few feet below the surface, but that is not always the case. Here are some fun facts about the amazing coral reefs that maybe you didn’t know.

They are not just shallow water lovers..

Deeper Corals in Costa Rica

Deep-sea coral reefs can thrive as deep as 2,000m below sea level. With little to no exposure to sunlight, they result to feeding on microscopic organisms where current flow is accelerated. Other marine organisms such as deep sea shrimp and crab depend on these tree like shaped structures for habitat. Deep-sea corals grow about 5-25mm a year and form groves of tree, feather, column, or fan structures. Although they take their time, the underwater gardens created in the depths are very extraordinary. Enough to keep scientists wanting more, despite what little knowledge we currently possess about the depths. 

They have healing properties

Scientists may not have all the answers to questions associated with the depths of our oceans. Although we like to think that we have all the answers about the purpose of more shallow water reefs. We are constantly discovering new key advantages the reef provides for not only marine life, but for humans. Scientists have discovered that the coral’s chemical compounds they produce can be used for numerous healing techniques and medications. For example, for patients suffering from illnesses such as heart disease, viruses and human bacterial infections. Also Alzheimer’s disease, and even cancer. Much more research is still in store, but coral reefs have been considered the “medicine of the 21st century”.

They have ways of looking after themselves too

Coral reefs in costa Rica

Coral reefs are being studied worldwide for their ability to heal humans suffering from various illnesses. They are also being consumed by these humans globally. Yet who is taking care of the coral when they are sick? Different reactions have been displayed by the coral in an effort to get our attention. I think by far the most fascinating presentation has been the Glowing Corals. Coral Bleaching has been a recent but very serious issue which is caused by climate change and has caused the coral to suffer greatly from the heat. In response, the coral develops a sunscreen-like chemical that is very vibrant, giving off a fascinating glow throughout the reef.

Watch your sunblock please!

Although corals are able to produce sunscreen, the topic of sunscreen still needs to be discussed. Studies have shown that many top brand sunscreens we use such as Tropicana and Coppertone possess harmful chemicals like Oxybenzone and Octinoxate which are essentially absorbed by the coral. The chemicals accumulate in the tissue and cause the same reaction to coral as rising ocean temperatures do, coral bleaching. Places such as Hawaii and Palau are taking part in the banning of harmful coral reef sunscreens and a better future for the underwater ecosystem is hopeful.

Plastic? No thank you!

PLAstic on the coral reef

We are fighting for a better future for coral reefs globally but face many obstacles caused by the destructive behavior of man. One of the most concerning issues is the pollution of plastics. Studies found that Astrangia corals actually prefer microplastics over their regular diet (shrimp eggs). Because there is such a large quantity of plastic found in the ocean, researchers have found over 100 pieces of microplastic in the guts of wild coral. I guess you could call this a guilty pleasure. 

Eating is a friendly affair

Coral must have a strong digestive system to consume that much plastic. How do corals consume plastic and other food daily? They do not have eyes therefor it is impossible to hunt visually. Instead, they have strategically developed a relationship with tiny algae living within them called zooxanthellae. The zoox capture sunlight which is converted into sugar for energy. The energy is then transferred to the coral polyp and provides the necessary nourishment. Coral also uses its intelligence to capture food in a very different way. At night, the coral polyps arise from their skeletons and use their stinging tentacles to capture tiny floating zooplankton nearby. Once the prey is captured, it is then pulled into the corals mouth and digested. This strategy therefor classifies coral as an animal. 

Lets get it on……

Like every animal, corals reproduce. But as you can tell by now, nothing about coral is “normal” or “boring”. Of course neither is their reproductive system. They can reproduce both asexually and sexually. Coral reproduces asexually by budding or fragmentation. When budding, the new polyps leave their parent polyps and form new colonies. When fragmentation occurs, an entire colony of coral breaks off to form a new colony. This method is used in many coral restoration efforts. But this also occurs due to storm or boat grounding.

When Coral reproduces sexually, both sperm and egg is released. For some corals, such as Elkhart and Boulder corals, one colony will produce sperm while another colony produces only eggs. For other coral species such as Brain coral, both sperm and eggs are produced at the same time. The coral larvae can be fertilized in either the body of the coral or in the surrounding water. This process is called spawning.

Coral spawning

Synchronization is key

Spawning can occur as a mass synchronized event which draws in many curious visitors. The larvae make their way to the surface of the ocean, which gives off a rather out of this world appearance. Then they make it to where the water meets the air. Following that they begin their final descent back to the ocean floor where they will settle and attach to a hard surface (that is, if they don’t get eaten first). Once attached, they begin their growth cycle and start the process all over again. It is not an easy life for coral, but their complexity and beauty is what keeps us wanting to know more. We still have much to learn about coral reefs and its inhabitants, but the facts that we have discovered shape our way for the future.

The Marvelous Moray Eel – 5 slithery snippets of fun

The Marvelous Moray Eel – 5 slithery snippets of fun

The moray eel is I believe one of the most misjudged creatures on the reef. “He was trying to bite me” is something I have heard from many a misinformed diver. When you explain how amazing they are and that they are just breathing it puts a whole new light on them. So, not that I need to convince you of their amazingness, but here are 5 amazing facts about the slithery moray eel.

green moray in quepos

Absolutely jawsome

Moray eels have 2 sets of jaws- one jaw is located further back and can come forward when trying to capture their prey. When the first set of closes on their prey the second one launches forward and grabs onto it and pulls it backwards into the throat. Moray eels can even eat SHARKS!! Moray eels are the only known species to use the second jaw as a weapon against their prey.

We only come out at night

Most of them are nocturnal. Eels can’t actually see too well so they rely on mainly smell to hunt because of this they don’t mind the darkness. The dark also provides more cover for the predators so their prey can’t see their attack!

They come in a large number of sizes

green moray in costa rica

The biggest moray eel can grow up to 9-10ft long which is bigger than a human and a bottlenose dolphin!! The smallest moray eel is the minute moray which only grows up to 14cm. Also, the giant moray eel can weigh at least 66lbs\30kg and the Abbotts moray can weigh only 30g.

How many species are there?

There are about 200 different types of species some of which are fresh water, salt water and brackish water (which is when the water is only slightly salty because the river water is mixing with seawater.)

The green moray eel is actually brown.

green moray in costa rica

The color comes from the mucus that makes them look green and also makes them really slimy so that they can slip into small cracks and holes without damaging their skin. They will stay in these small cracks and holes and wait for their prey.

Coral diary update – a busy start to November

Coral diary update – a busy start to November

Coral Coral Coral! We have been really busy working in our coral nurseries these last couple of weeks. Kat and our new intern Anni have cleaned and measured all our current coral fragments; we can report some great growth since the last data collection a month ago! 

coral fragmenting

Tool fundraiser update

We are thrilled that our “Tool Fundraiser” has allowed us to purchase a Gryphon AquaSaw! Thank you so much to our generous donors that made this purchase possible!
The Aquasaw is a diamond blade bandsaw, and is ideal for precision fragmenting of hard corals. This is going to totally change the way we can process corals to go out to the nurseries.

Working on our coral fragmenting in Costa Rica

Tuesday was for fragmenting!

On Tuesday we collected corals from wild donor colonies and brought them back to the Marina for processing. We used the new saw to “micro-fragment” the corals into smaller pieces to grow in the nurseries. The saw makes it much easier to cut the fragments into the perfect size and causes less stress to the corals. The coral fragments were then attached to concrete discs on which they will grow in our ocean nurseries for the next 6 month to a year. Cutting the corals into small fragments stimulates growth, we will also be monitoring and cleaning to give them and even better chance of survival. 

Marine conservation costa rica intern Anni

Coral planting here we come

On Wednesday, we are excited to announce that we took over 100 fragments of 3 coral species and planted them in our nurseries!!
If you would like to help fund our coral reef restoration work, our tool fundraiser is still going! We have several more tools that we need including an underwater drill, that will use for attaching the coral colonies grown in our nurseries back onto our local reef.

Pura Vida,

Kat

Coral Diaries – November begins

Coral Diaries – November begins

November to me, always brings a sense of anticipation. You can feel the summer coming to Costa Rica. In October, businesses take their annual vacation and boats get their bottoms painted November though is the start of the new season. 
Here at Marine Conservation Costa Rica we are also really excited to get back in the water!

Marine Biologist John Reinbott

Starting this season, we welcome John Reinbott to our crew. John is a marine biologist and is fresh from a year long internship at the Coral Restoration FoundationTM in Florida. John and I are going to be working closely together on our coral restoration project. This last week we have been looking at the nurseries. We have also been brainstorming lots of ways we can improve on our current methods…and it’s been fun!

coral conservation intern
Welcome Coral intern – Anna

We also welcome Anna, our new coral intern from Ecuador. She will be helping us with data collection, maintenance and cleaning. Also building new structures and community education.
Looks like it’s going to be an amazing season! 

If you are interested about what we get up to, you  can see on our daily goings on on our Instagram stories @marineconservationcostarica

It’s a tool appeal – Fundraising for our reefs

It’s a tool appeal – Fundraising for our reefs

coral gardening costa rica

With the new season underway we are excitedly continuing our week here in Costa Rica. We have already established a nursery here in Manuel Antonio and are working hard to expand it and the studies that we are doing on the corals. Our work is an essential part of restoring the reef and we are in the ocean regularly during the week. Whether it is fragmenting, planting in the nursery or completing health surveys on the surrounding areas, the work never stops.

As part of our expanding project we are in need of some special tools to help with the coral nursery. When fragmenting the corals, it is essential that it is done in an efficient and safe way, to ensure that they have the best chance of regrowing once we outplant them back onto the coral reef. Because of this we have a list of tools that would be extremely valuable in enabling us to do that. This includes a diamond band saw and an underwater powerdrill as well as other smaller tools. The total cost for these tools is $1500 and for this, we are turning to you. We are asking for donations to our tool project so that we can continue our work in the best way possible. It is for us and for our oceans.

If you are able to donate anything, please click on the link below and attach your details, so that we can thank all of the generous people that have helped us.

Thank you from all of the team at MCCR

The amazing Octopus – 5 fun facts

The amazing Octopus – 5 fun facts

octopus hiding under a rock
Photo by Laura Bori

Octopus are some of our favorite squishy invertebrates of the reef. With their flashing colors and unique behavior it is always fun to look them out and find them. Apart from the fact they have 8 legs, (unless you are Hank from Finding Dory), what else do you know about them? Here are 5 fun facts that firmly put them in the awesome animal category! 

Octopus have blue blood

Rather than the old boring red color, Octopus have blue blood. This is because of a protein that has copper atoms in it that binds itself to the same amount of oxygen atoms. This is completely different to our blood that has iron atoms in it. This protein is what allows the octopus to survive in very cold and very warm waters because it is transported to its vital tissues around their bodies

How many hearts?

An Octopus has 3 hearts of which 2 of them are pumping blood to the gills and the other one pumps blood to their organs. Octopus need more oxygen than other invertebrate species so their 3 hearts allows for them to have a steady flow of oxygen. Their copper based blood is not as good as iron based blood for transporting oxygen throughout the body so their three hearts compensate for that by pumping blood around at a higher pressure. Busy, busy, busy!

octopus on Manuel Antonio Reef
photo by Laura Bori

I thought a chicken had it bad..

Females usually lay around 200,000- 400,000 eggs which varies between species. Once laid, the female octopus guards the eggs until they are ready to hatch. After they hatch the females body essentially starts to destroy itself and the cells basically tear through her tissues and organs until she dies. 

They could join mensa,

Well, maybe not, but Octopus are considered the most intelligent creature of all invertebrates. They have the largest brain to body mass ratio of any of the invertebrates. There have been many studies on octopus through maze and problem solving that have shown that octopus have long and short term memory. Hey, they can even predict world cup games apparently!

They have been around for a long time

The oldest known fossil of an octopus is 296 million year old. It is called the Pohlsepia. Researchers have identified marks of 8 arms, 2 eyes and even the possibility of an ink sac on the fossil.