When I left university, I was a budding conservationist armed with good intentions, theoretical head knowledge, and an enthusiasm to change the world. I then entered a real world where human hearts were not so easy to sway. After firsthand experience in a variety of contexts, I was left wondering how to negotiate that space between understanding facts and inspiring a sacrificial love which is powerful enough to change our ways. It is not a simple step, but our Christian faith can help this conversation, and possibly the whole planet, in a big way.
My introduction to practical marine conservation began in the tropical waters around Madagascar and the Maldives. Here I dived into the rich world of the coral reef and came to delight in the familiar characters—territorial fish protecting their anemone, eels poking their heads out from caves, and graceful turtles surfacing nearby to breathe. In this busy picture-postcard scene, the reef-building coral are quite easily overlooked. It can be difficult to appreciate the rock-like structures for what they are: animals supporting an ecosystem under extreme threat.
If you watch a reef for long enough, or have the pleasure of a night-time snorkel, you will see small flower-like animals emerging all over the coral's surface. Coral is not just a hard skeleton—it is a colony of animals called polyps. Each polyp lives within its own calcium carbonate cup, which it builds by drawing minerals from the seawater. The animals emerge under the protection of night and use their tentacles to snatch passing food from the water around them. This feeding behavior only supplies a fraction of what they need. The bulk of their fuel is collected during the daytime from a relationship with colorful single-celled algae called zooxanthellae. These tiny organisms live within the polyp's body tissue, converting energy from the sun into carbohydrates.
Today, increasingly dire headlines announce concern for this relationship between coral and zooxanthellae in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Coral are suited to live in a very particular range of water conditions. When a coral is shocked or stressed by a sudden change in these conditions, it loses its zooxanthellae in a process called bleaching. Using aerial surveys, scientists have estimated that the latest temperature increase in Australian waters has left more than two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef bleached. If the zooxanthellae do not return to the polyps in time, the coral will starve and die, leaving behind lifeless white skeletons.
This bleaching affects not only the coral and a huge array of reef species, but also coastal communities, who depend on healthy reefs for sustenance, income, protection from storm energy and, for island states, the very sand they live on.
Healthy coral can withstand this lean period without their zooxanthellae if conditions quickly return to normal. However, many coral communities are not in good health. They face a myriad of local pressures like overfishing, poor water quality from construction, waste, and nutrients from nearby agriculture. When coral are weakened, even small changes in the water temperature or pH can act as the final straw for the important animal-algae relationship. These fluctuations are ultimately linked to ocean-wide processes and even to the Earth's changing atmosphere. The complex connections between land, ocean, and atmosphere are fascinating to study but impossible to restore without global cooperation.