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The Coral Triangle: An underwater Amazon

February 13, 2013 - Graham Land

YOU know how it is: you’ve been everywhere. You’ve hacked your way through dense rainforest, climbed cloudy peaks, combed beaches and traversed sun-baked deserts. You’ve even slept on a slab of ice in a freezing Arctic hotel. Now why would you want to do that? Boredom. 

But wait, over 70% of the Earth is covered by water! You’ve been concentrating on dry land. You haven’t even begun to explore “Spaceship Earth” until becoming mired in the salt chuck. You think a bit of kitesurfing in the Philippines and white water tubing in Laos counts as exploring the deep blue? Think again!

Baby sea turtle, Malaysia. Pic: Ben Klocek (Flickr CC)

Welcome to the Coral Triangle, aka the “nursery of the seas”, aka the “Amazon of the oceans”, a 5.7 million square km (2.2 mil sq mile) area encompassing the tropical marine waters around Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, East Timor and the Solomon Islands. It is home to nearly 600 species of reef coral, 3-4,000 species of fish and 6 of the world’s 7 sea turtle species.

The New York Times is featuring an ongoing series of articles on the Coral Triangle by Cornell University scientist Drew Harvell, who is studying coral reefs and marine ecosystems in Indonesia. She describes both healthy and damaged reefs. Here is a description of a healthy reef in Biak, Papua, Indonesia from her second installment:

But this was only the beginning, since there were so many bright fish at all levels of the food chain. From the parrotfish grazing on algae to the coral-eating butterflyfish to the spectacularly bright plankton-eating chromis hiding nervously in the branching corals to the lurking moray eels, the scene was a multihued circus of fish. And below us in deeper water lurked a cadre of much larger predatory fish that I couldn’t even identify.

Harvell also goes over some of the potential positive as well as harmful impacts of eco-tourism, citing Coral Triangle reefs and their reef-dependent communities as examples. As many as 130 million people in the region depend on its reef ecosystems.

Read all installments here.

False clown fish, Komodo National Park, Indonesia. Pic: Robert Scales (Flickr CC)

Problems facing the Coral Triangle include pollution, coastal development and overfishing. A recent report found that 85% of reefs in the Triangle are threatened by human activity.

An extensive resource on the Coral Triangle can be found on the website of the CTI-CCF (Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries, and Food Security), a “multilateral partnership of six countries working together to sustain extraordinary marine and coastal resources by addressing crucial issues such as food security, climate change and marine biodiversity.”

Also check out thecoraltriangle.com for something a bit more reader-friendly in tone and with lots of nice pictures. This informative website includes info on different parts of the Triangle, rare species like the whale sharks of the Philippines, tuna, seabirds and the official Coral Triangle Day (June 9).

Yet another valuable, informative and beautiful site is the WWF’s Coral Triangle page.

So if I’ve peaked your interest in the Coral Triangle and you want to take a trip to witness some of its splendor, just remember to do your research and find out about ethical tourism in the area. Donsol Bay in the Philippines is a great place to start if you want to see whale sharks, and if you really want to get involved, volunteer to replant coral reefs while protecting turtles and sharks in Malaysia.

Video still from Befriending Giants - Whale Sharks of Oslob (Flickr CC)

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