The Magnificent Coral of Panama


How Coral Develops And Why We Need To Conserve It
The coral's skeleton, comprised of decomposed coral species, other organisms and zooplankton, forms around a polyp that captures its nutrients with tentacles containing poisonous cells. Algae called zooxanthellae lives in coral tissue, stimulating it to grow faster. Polyps share their nutrients with one another through interconnecting interior canals. In tropical waters, the skeletons of coral form reefs bonded by the calcium carbonate that coralline algae produces.

Coral provides habitat for a wide variety of tropical fish and other marine species, making snorkeling on Panama tours, a most pleasurable activity. Sponges, crustaceans and mollusks also live among the coral, forming a barrier that helps protect shorelines from destructive weather.

Slight changes in surface water temperatures, like those caused by El Nino, can make coral expel its zooxanthellae. This is disastrous for the coral, making it "bleach" or lose its color. Some coral species withstand this assault better than others.

The survival of coral in close proximity to human populations is precarious on many fronts. Loss of shoreline habitat such as mangroves and wetlands, and the harvesting of live tropical fish by dumping sodium cyanide or dynamite in the water, upsets the delicate balance that coral needs to survive.

Coral is a mined product, a handy low-cost material for building sea walls and to use as landfill to stabilize islands. Even if left undisturbed, coral can only live in shallow clear nutrient-low water that enables photosynthesis by the zooxanthellae to occur. Run-off that changes the pH or adds nutrients can inhibit or eliminate photosynthesis and allow other algae to grow that kills the coral.

Because the level of carbon dioxide is increasing in the atmosphere, the oceans in general are becoming more acidic, resulting in less calcification on which coral depends to build its skeletal structure. This slows the secretion of coralline algae that builds reefs.

While there is neither consensus among scientists nor sufficient research about the causes of reef deterioration, there is no disagreement on the fact that most of the problem results from human activities. Of special interest to snorkelers and divers on Panama tours is the health of the country's coral reefs. As pristine and varied as these coral reefs are, they are disappearing fast. Scientists estimate that within the past four decades, 80% has disappeared.

Conservation efforts aimed at understanding the causes of the country's coral reef degradation are underway by such organizations as the Caribbean Coral Reef Management and Conservation Program, the Conservation Science Institute and the Institute for Tropical Ecology and Conservation, joining worldwide efforts to restore and protect the reefs. The International Coral Reef Initiative has named 2008 "The International Year of the Reef" to bring the world's attention to the calamity facing this fragile ecosystem.