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July 2012: Table Coral, Indonesia

"This huge table coral measures around 23 feet across and may well be the largest survivor of its kind."

From the Photographer...

Rod Salm   

There are table corals and then there are huge table corals. This is a photo of the latter.

This huge table coral measures around 23 feet across and may well be the largest survivor of its kind. I have consulted with friends and colleagues around the world and no one has seen one of this size in recent years, including my friends in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

I consider this colony an old pal. On the rare occasions I get to visit the remote Indonesian reef on which it lives, I get a knot (not unlike a bundle of sea urchins) in the pit of my stomach and my breathing gets perceptively shallower. In short, I get nervous with anticipation of whether it still lives.

Such magnificent old survivors are becoming increasingly rare. So rare, I have started photographing all large coral colonies as I encounter them to capture a visual record before, or should I say lest, they all disappear.

Large table corals like this one are extremely vulnerable: they are among the most sensitive to heat stress and bleaching, and are susceptible to all kinds of damage from anchoring, net and blast fishing, and trampling by fishers or divers.

Why are they important? In this case, the coral’s age and vulnerability tells us that the area is not heavily fished, or at least not with destructive methods. It also tells us the it has survived multiple bleaching events that have hit Indonesian reefs, including the mass bleaching of 1998 that caused the loss of about 16% of the world’s coral reefs. Does that mean it is genetically predisposed to resist heat stress? Probably not. But it more likely means that oceanographic conditions in the area ameliorate conditions during time of stress and help coral communities here avoid bleaching.

Either way this is good news and we can only hope that climate change will not cause significant alteration of current patterns on this exquisite reef that has many other splendid large coral colonies in addition to this one. These large colonies all have huge reproductive potential and able to seed the repopulation of damaged areas of reef with large quantities of larvae. All bodes well for this coral community.

Now all that is needed is some organization local or international, community-based, government or NGO, or combination of these, to step in and help manage the area to sustain its beauty and abundance of life, as well as such icons as the table coral in the picture.

Rod Salm is The Nature Conservancy’s director or marine science and strategies
for the Asia Pacific Region. You can view more of Rod’s coral reef photography here.

In his spare time, Rod and his wife are installing a photovoltaic solar system on their house. By doing so, the Salms are pumping electricity into the grid and reducing the amount of electricity generated through GHG producing methods as a way to help reduce the heat stress of corals. They are dedicating the installment to the preservation of the corals reef of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

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