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The Colors of Death: Visualizing Coral Bleaching

My name is Zack Rago. I am the Research & Outreach Coordinator here at Teens4Oceans. I came to Teens4Oceans because I have a deep passion and love for our oceans as a whole and in particular the corals that make up our stunning coral reef ecosystems around the world. I fell in love with coral reefs at a young age and they have been the driving force that ultimately landed me with T4O. Corals are truly incredible organisms. Aesthetically there is nothing else on the planet as beautiful, the colors, the structures, the vast wealth of life they support, and the minute details that take every ounce of attention to see. Corals are some of the simplest, yet most complicated organisms on the planet. Stationary, yet incredibly architectural. Primitive, yet amazingly efficient. Smaller than a pin or bigger than your house. Unbelievably resilient, yet dramatically fragile. However, in today’s world corals are facing massive changes and are the most threatened ecosystem on the planet. This is a fact that has bothered me for quite some time and I’ve wanted nothing more than to protect what I love from what could be their extinction. 


In 2014 our planet began shifting into what would eventually become the largest El Nino event on modern record. Immediately, the coral reef community was on high alert for a mass coral bleaching event. As luck would have it, I met an amazing team who was working on a project traveling the globe with the goal of documenting the degradation of coral reefs and particularly this phenomenon of coral bleaching. I was given the opportunity to join their project and assist in documenting the dismal situation that our coral reefs are facing.
Historically, coral bleaching events on large scales are affiliated with very strong El Nino events. In 1997-98 we recorded the largest El Nino to date and on top of that we witnessed the first Global Bleaching Events ever recorded. When we say Mass Global Bleaching we mean exactly what we say. In the last year and a half we have seen large scale bleaching on coral reefs world wide. From Hawaii, the Caribbean, Fiji, Kiribati, New Caledonia, American Samoa, Indonesia, and finally onto the crown jewel, The Great Barrier Reef, this has been quite literally a global event. Many of these reefs have even been hit twice in that time frame and the event isn’t even finished. In the next few weeks we anticipate seeing further bleaching in the Indonesia region, the East Coast of the Africa, and the Maldives. 


So what happens to corals when the water gets hot. Corals are a very simple yet very complicated organism. In fact, they are essentially two organisms that make up one, the holobiont. Corals have zooxanthellae, a little tiny algae (Dinoflagellates called Symbiodinium) that are incorporated into their tissues. These symbionts, as we like to call them, produce the energy the coral needs to survive, flourish, grow and also give the corals the spectacular array of colors that we adore so much. They produce this energy with the magical power of photosynthesis. Simply put, corals incorporate zooxanthellae into their tissue in order to use the power of photosynthesis without actually being photosynthetic themselves, an amazingly beautiful evolutionary feat. Here’s the catch. When the water gets to hot these symbionts begin to produce nasty molecules called reactive oxygen species (ROS) that will kill coral. In a last ditch effort to save themselves corals begin to expel this algae from there tissues before it’s to late. This expulsion of symbionts is a process termed bleaching. As the symbionts are expelled the stunning colors of the coral disappear with it, leaving behind the bright white skeleton of the coral covered in a thin transparent tissue. Given that water temperatures return to normal some coral can recover and become once again colorful and beautiful. But, without their little energy producing algae these corals can only last around a month. If the temperature stays to warm any longer than that most corals will die and be taken over by muck and algae. 


Now that we have that sorted out, back to El Nino. We are currently facing the largest Global Bleaching event ever recorded. Right this moment over 95% of coral reefs in the northern portions of the GBR are severely bleached. I am currently based on Lizard Island where the bleaching has been at an extraordinarily level never seen before. I dive twice a day every single day in order to watch these corals. The amount of death that I have witnessed in the past week is on a scale that I can hardly articulate into words. I estimate that nearly 100% of the hard corals are bleached with most being severe. Currently I estimate that mortality among these hard corals is around 25-30% and that number climbs every day. If was telling this story 48 hours ago that number would have been 15%… I’ve been in Australia for nearly 4 months now documenting corals. I have watched an ecosystem I dreamt about for my entire life die in front of my eyes, literally. This place is one of the wonders of the world, the largest living organism on the planet and arguably the most ecologically diverse system in nature. Coral reefs provide sheltered coasted for millions of humans around the globe, provide a substantial amount to the global economy, and most of all keep the balance of the worlds oceans, and in turn the planet as a whole, making earth suitable for life as we know it. 


I know it is hard to identify with catastrophe unless it effects you directly, and I know that not everybody has the opportunity to see the reefs the way I have been able to. But if you could see what is happening underwater you might be able to grasp and understand the enormity of this disaster. Over the last 4 months I have taken hundreds of photographs on these reefs. I have chosen over 40 of these images to share with the world in the hopes of exposing the reality of what we are doing to our oceans. While I gave my best attempt to keep them captivating I hope that you can also recognize the grim and haunting reality that they represent. 


We can do better. We must do better.​​​​​