One of my best travel moments ever was when I was 12 years old, and my family was visiting Hawaii. We didn’t have plans for the entire day — we were just going to sit out at the beach and then get a nice dinner at night. I quickly got tired of making sandcastles — I was 12, for Christ’s sake — and tormenting my little sister, so I took out the mask, snorkel, and flippers my dad had bought me and walked out into the ocean.

Any other time I’d done this, I’d found nothing but sand floors and a fish or two — overall not quite exciting enough for me to spend much time on. But about 30 yards offshore, I came upon a coral reef; I spent hours hovering over it, watching colorful fish, turtles, and other bizarre creatures which, to this day, I don’t know the names for. When I came back in my back was sunburnt to a crisp, but I’d discovered what I’d be doing for the rest of the trip.

Here are some pictures from these incredible ecosystems.

1

If you've ever had the pleasure of visiting a coral reef, either as a diver or snorkeler, you understand how important it is that we protect these fragile ecosystems.
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2

The ocean absorbs up to a third of humankind’s carbon emissions. As a result, we have less carbon in the atmosphere, which is a good thing—but this also leads to the acidification of the ocean as the carbon turns into carbonic acid.
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Coral reefs are very delicate environments, and the effects of increased water acidity on reefs still aren’t totally understood—but they’re almost certainly not good.
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In addition to acidity, reefs are killed by rising global temperatures. The rise in temperatures from the 1998 El Nino system alone is believed to have killed 16% of all the world’s coral reefs.
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The increase in temperatures (and a number of other environmental factors) can cause corals to 'bleach,' which is when they expel tiny single-cell organisms that not only protect them but give them their color. The result is the probable death of the coral, and also the removal of a lot of the color from the ecosystem.
Photo: Scott Sporleder

6

If you go diving in a reef, go by the rule "take only pictures, leave only bubbles.” Even touching the reef with your fin or kicking up sand at the bottom can cause damage to the reef.
Photo: Scott Sporleder

7

If you live near an aquarium, chances are they’re doing a lot to protect aquatic ecosystems. Try supporting your local aquarium, your local conservation groups, and efforts to create marine preserves.
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8

Reefs form in one of three ways: First, they can be directly attached to the shore, as a 'fringing' reef. Second, they can be separated from the shore by a channel as a 'barrier' reef—like the world’s most famous reef, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. And, third, they can form totally separately from land in a circle known as an atoll, pictured above. These can become their own islands.
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9

The Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland, Australia, is made up of 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands and is the largest object made of living organisms on Earth.
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10

Reefs are dependent on warm temperatures and sunlight, so many of their structures go right up to the surface, making them a hazard for sailors.
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11

Coral reefs are mostly made up of tiny little invertebrates, called corals, which latch onto rocks or other hard surfaces and start to grow out. As they die, they skeletonize, and new corals grow on top of them, so that over time, they're actually forming their own separate structures.
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12

Because they form protective structures that're good for hiding in, are close to sunlight, and are in warm water, reefs are incredibly diverse ecosystems. This is, in large part, why they're as beautiful as they are for visiting divers and snorkelers.
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13

Snorkeling and diving in reefs is incredibly popular because of the sights and the relatively shallow depth, making them generally easier and safer dives for beginners.
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14

Even though they can be dangerous to sailors, reefs are a huge boon to humans: First, there are many islands that wouldn’t exist if their reefs didn’t help to protect them from waves, and second, they're a huge source of fishing and tourism revenue—in total amounting to between $30 and $375 billion dollars a year for the world economy.
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15

Many of the species in coral reefs have symbiotic relationships, probably most famously—thanks to Finding Nemo—clownfish and anemones. Anemones serve as protection for the clownfish, while clownfish clean the anemones of parasites.
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16

Most of the hazards facing coral reefs weren’t totally understood until fairly recently, and as a result we still basically don’t know what will happen. Some forms of coral reefs have been found in darker and colder environments, so while they might not continue to exist in their current forms for long, they may well be around in a different form for a long time to come.
Photo: Scott Sporleder

17

Aside from problems with global warming, coral reefs also face threats from water pollution and agricultural fertilizer runoff, which encourages algae growth.
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18

When coral reefs die, the ecosystem around them dies with them. They're usually taken over by algae or seaweed.
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19

Unfortunately, a lot of the problems facing coral reefs are irreversible, and they may be one of many ecosystems that are disproportionate victims of the current mass extinction. If you want to see them as they exist today, now’s better than later.
Photo: Scott Sporleder

20

Of course, coral reefs can also be damaged by tourism—either by boats or the actual people snorkeling or swimming in them.
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21

Then there are the problems of overfishing, as well as fishermen who use either cyanide or explosives to fish. Cyanide fishing is to stun and capture fish for aquariums, but it’s cyanide, so of course it poisons other animals. And explosives is just literally the dumping of explosives in the water to kill the fish. Which seems so transparently stupid that it’s hard to believe it’s real.
Photo: Scott Sporleder

22

If you live near a coastline with coral reefs, you can help a few ways: First, find out how to dive and snorkel sustainably, and only support local dive shops that make an effort at this. You can also join reef cleanups.
Photo: Scott Sporleder

23

Don’t use chemical fertilizers, and don’t litter. Finding Nemo was right: All drains lead to the ocean.
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24

If you’re going out into a reef area yourself, be sure to not use your anchor. Anchors can damage the reef floor.
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25

Another simple fix is to plant a tree. Trees help prevent water runoff, and they reduce carbon in the atmosphere.
Photo: Scott Sporleder

26

If you are a fish collector, make sure your fish are captured in an ecologically sound manner—NOT using cyanide.
Photo: Scott Sporleder

27

You should also never start a liverock aquarium. Gathering the rock—even if done legally—damages the reef.
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28

Another super easy step is to just walk and bike more—most of the current problems facing reefs have to do with carbon emissions, so cutting down your carbon footprint is one of the best ways to save reefs (and, let’s be honest, a good chunk of the other ecosystems out there).
Photo: Scott Sporleder

29

Finally, the best way to fix the problem is to contact your local representative. Sadly, the problem of global warming and climate change is a systemic one, and even though you can help with your individual efforts, a more cooperative, wide-scale effort needs to be made if we truly want to save our oceans.
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30

You can't look at these images and not agree our coral reefs are worth protecting.
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