Explore our planet’s largest, and most biodiverse archipelago with Jesse Lewis, Rainforest Trust’s Education Coordinator, as he leads a study abroad trip across Indonesia and blogs about the journey in this eight part series.
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Out on a coral reef ecology lesson, my students and I snorkel over a dazzling world of swaying anemones, giant clams and colorful fish. Bobbing in the translucent waters we pass over hard and soft corals, sea fans, sponges and star fish. It is like swimming through a dream world of kaleidoscopic life forms, colors and sensations.
We are in the Wakatobi Islands, located off the southeastern coast of Sulawesi. These remote islands are home to the Wakatobi Marine Park, once famously described as “underwater nirvana” by legendary ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.
Sitting at the edge of the Banda Sea, Wakatobi lies in the very heart of the Coral Triangle, an area stretching roughly between the borders of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, and the Philippines.
The Coral Triangle’s large area and extraordinary range of habitats make it the global epicenter of marine biodiversity on our planet. At least 500 reef-building corals have been described here, and more than 3,000 species of fish, including critically endangered species like Sea Turtles and Whale Sharks.
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Because of its staggering biodiversity, the Coral Triangle has often been called the “Amazon of the sea”. Like the Amazon the area it covers is vast, stretching over 3.5 million square miles of tropical-ocean and sustaining the lives of over 120 million people throughout the region.
Like rainforests, coral reefs are also imperiled by humans. They are fragile ecosystems, due in part to their sensitivity to water temperature. Global climate change is a particular threat to coral reefs as heightened water temperatures stress corals, causing them to bleach and die.
Pollution, coastal development, overfishing and siltation also threaten coral reefs. As rainforests are cut down in places like Borneo and Sumatra, the massive root systems that once held the soil in place disappear too. In turn, huge amounts of soil are washed into the ocean. These sediment loads wash onto reefs and the millions of species that call them home, while obscuring the sunlight corals need to photosynthesize and thrive.
Some studies have found that sedimentation from deforestation is a bigger threat to coral reefs than impacts from climate change. Mangroves and sea grass beds, which normally act as filters for sediment, are also being rapidly destroyed across some parts of the coral triangle, leading to an increase in the amount of sediment reaching coral reefs.
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Threats such as these directly affect the people who depend on these reefs for their livlihoods. People like the Bajau, one of the last nomadic marine communities in the world. For generations they have plied the waters of the Coral Triangle. Traditionally hunter gatherers, the Bajau spear fish and dive to improbable depths in search of pearls and sea cucumbers. But as seas are fished out it has become harder for them to support themselves and their unique way of life.
As seas change and the older generation disappear, the Bajau’s rich traditional knowledge is in danger of dying out with them – knowledge that could play an important role in preserving the biodiversity and ecosystems of both the Coral Triangle and the world’s oceans.
Join us on our next post to learn more about the last sea nomads and their struggle to preserve their vanishing way of life.
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