The Coral reefs Emily Bernard

Welcome to the Ocean

I have always been fascinated with the ocean and all of the millions of types of organisms living inside it. But I always wondered, "how does it affect me?" After all, I only go to the beach and swim in the ocean once or twice a year.

My mindset completely changed when I stumbled across a Netflix documentary about the the endangerment of coral reefs. I decided to watch it, and ever since then, I have been fascinated with the life and complexity of coral reefs. They impact us, but more importantly, we impact them. Everything from the pollution in the ocean, to the sunblock we use, greatly affects coral. Surprisingly, there is a religious component. Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change addresses how, despite being God’s children, we tend to neglect the other parts of creation and let it suffer. This might seem overwhelming, but I promise, we can make a difference. A great place to begin is to become educated. What is going on in the environment? How can I help? Most importantly, how do the coral reefs connect to Catholic social teaching?

What the heck is coral?

Coral is one of the most important organisms in the ocean and have many uses aside from attracting tourists. There are is an incredible variety of coral but in its simplest form, it is a polyp, a tiny organism with tentacles and a mouth. The tentacles sting and capture small organisms for food. Despite looking like weirdly shaped plants, coral is actually an animal since it does not create its own food.

Coral is actually a bunch of little polyps together. This type of animal is known as sessile. They grow into the ocean floor like tree roots, cementing themselves to the floor. Coral is found all over the world, mainly in tropical climates around the equator. Some standout locations are Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, Hawaii, and Belize. We can break down coral reefs into three types.

Fringing, Barrier, Atoll

Fringing coral reefs are the most common and grow into the sea from the shoreline.

Barrier coral reefs are similar to fringing reefs but are separated by a massive body of water.

Atolls are easy to spot and are oval shape. They form when fringing coral forms around a volcanic island below sea level while coral grows upwards toward the surface of the shore.

Below is a trailer for the Netflix documentary “Chasing Coral”, which exposes the mistreatment of coral and how important these beautiful creatures really are.

Why Are Coral Reefs Important?

Though they may must just seem like pretty objects at the bottom of the sea, coral reefs have amazing benefits for animals and humans alike. For humans, everyday medicines are actually derived from coral. Some examples include potential cures for arthritis, certain cancers, and viruses. According to Columbia University, the coral reefs have, “… a global economic value of $375 billion a year” and “…provide food and resources for more than 500 million people in over 100 countries and territories.”

The following excerpt perfectly captures society’s current mindset on the environment.

“Each year hundreds of millions of tons of waste are generated, much of it non-biodegradable, highly toxic and radioactive, from homes and businesses, from construction and demolition sites, from clinical, electronic and industrial sources. The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish. Industrial waste and chemical products utilized in cities and agricultural areas can lead to bioaccumulation in the organisms of the local population, even when levels of toxins in those places are low. Frequently no measures are taken until after people’s health has been irreversibly affected.”

Chapter one of Laudato Si, the very controversial topics of pollution and climate change are breached. Our materialistic and disposable culture and overall way of life not only impacts our own quality of life, but the quality of the world we live in. The last line of the quotation is especially important, as it addresses the permanent damage that happens daily to coral reefs at a rapid pace. This damaging process is known as coral bleaching and is happening all over the world.

What is coral bleaching?

Coral bleaching is exactly what it sounds like. These colorful creatures become essentially “bleached” over time and the damage is irreversible. Just like humans, when corals get stressed, they cannot function to the best of their ability. To survive, corals need the marine algae known as zooxanthellae, which lives inside them. Without this, the coral cannot react with the sunlight for photosynthesis and will die. When the corals get stressed, due to excessive heat, pollution, or foreign chemicals (such as sunblock), they “panic” and shed the important marine algae. As a result, their color disappears, the corals die, and the only thing that remains is a white, lifeless carcass of a once-vibrant animal. Below is a time lapse video of coral bleaching and a chart that explains the process in detail.

My Catholic Experience

I have been going to Catholic school since I was five years old, so I am very educated in Catholic social teaching. Growing up in Catholic school and being raised Catholic has instilled in me a sense of community. Though everyone is different, attending a Catholic school creates a sense of community. Of course, there are different levels of belief for people, but, overall, everyone has a similar mindset.

I have been very exposed to the Bible, its parables, and the overall history of Catholicism, but I really wanted to educate myself on our current leader, Pope Francis. This project has enabled me to do just that! I would never have chosen to read “Laudato Si” on my own, so I am truly grateful it was assigned for this semester. Pope Francis is passionate about our Earth and encourages all of God’s people to follow that same mindset. This project, along with this class, has opened my eyes to the world around me, helped me to identify my interests, and learn how to make an actual impact on the Earth and its inhabitants.

"Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change. We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone. This basic awareness would enable the development of new convictions, attitudes and forms of life. A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal.”

This opening quote from Chapter 6: Ecological Education and Spirituality of Laudato Si perfectly captures what we, as God’s creation, need to remember. We are not alone on this planet, but rather, we share this earth with millions of creations that were here before us. We have a chance to impact the environment in a positive way, and we can start with the coral reefs.

Unfortunately, getting educated on the ecology of the earth is not a priority for most. Even if it is, people get overwhelmed and do not know where to begin. Marine biologist and TED speaker Kristen Marhaver explains why there is still hope. Below is a brief description from www.wingsworlquest.org about her background:

“Dr. Kristen Marhaver, a marine biologist, completed her NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellowship studying the ecology, reproduction, and juvenile behavior of Caribbean reef corals at the CARMABI Research Station in Curaçao. To help restore the damaged signals and factors that corals need to survive, she developed new settlement surfaces, bacterial probiotic tools, and rearing strategies for juvenile corals, including for threatened species.”

The Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef, located in Australia, is one of the largest tourist attractions in the world. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is larger than Italy and provides approximately 50,000 jobs!

How can we help?

Though it can seem overwhelming, there are easy ways to save the coral reefs!

“In assessing the environmental impact of any project, concern is usually shown for its effects on soil, water and air, yet few careful studies are made of its impact on biodiversity, as if the loss of species or animals and plant groups were of little importance.”

It is easy to worry about the pollution in the air we breathe or the water we drink, because it directly affects us every day. If water or air was polluted, then we suffer. This is where the idea of selfishness arises, a characteristic and pattern that is hard to break.

Let’s Donate!

Most of us will not be working directly with coral reefs, but that does not mean we cannot protect them! There are numerous organizations that educate people and accept donations to save this precious species.


Thank You

Laudato Si text

"Chasing Coral" Netflix documentary










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