In normal, human, terrestrial, domestic urban or rural life, the concept of a chimney is nothing special to people. To some, the romanticised idea of a warm fireplace, to some bringing about thoughts of Christmas, and others simply curiously wondering at such ancient forms of energy acquisition. On a larger scale, like in industry, chimneys are seen as a symbol of pollution and chemical toxicity, with factories pumping clouds of black smoke into the atmosphere to produce whatever they produce. Or even larger icons of destruction, are the monstrous chimneys of Nuclear Powerplants, massive funnels billowing steam reminding us of scale of energy contained and being produced within the facility.
This design, to eject masses of by-products into surrounding environment, long pre-dates human thinking. Coral reefs around the world are filled with its own chimneys, often well over the height of the tallest ape and sometimes several meters in circumference, Barrel Sponges are the towering columns of the marine world. These structures are some of the simplest, and are descendants of some of the oldest forms of life on our planet, and they serve an often overlooked role in saving coral reefs. Above the waves, chimneys direct waste gasses into the air above to dissipate over a wider area and the same mechanism is utilised by the barrel sponge on coral reefs. The reefs of Koh Tao have a diverse range of sponges but none are more impressive and dominating the reefscape than the Barrel Sponge (in this case, Xestospongia testudinaria).
It was a momentous week for us here at the NHRCP, as we sunk 3 of our newest sculptures in Chalok Baan Kao on the subject of ‘Despair’. This was, in no small part, due to the efforts of our incredible team of volunteers, interns and staff. Without them, none of these concepts would ever come to fruition and I can’t thank them enough for their continued support.
Restoration work has already begun on the sculptures, as fragments were transplanted to their surfaces using epoxy. Acropora corals were chosen for the bases of the structures while slower growing sub-massive species (Porites, Favites, Goniastrea, etc.) were planted onto the topmost surfaces. The faster growing branching species of Acropora will create a wealth of structurally complex habitat around the bases of the structures, while allowing the sub-massive corals time to mature without the risk of being shaded.
Each year, we are blessed to receive many people coming to Koh Tao to assist on our marine conservation program from all ages, countries, and demographics. Yet, we are always surprised at how little those involved in the rest of the diving industry actually do to protect the environment, and the same goes for society as a whole. Is there something unique about these people who come to dedicate weeks or months of their lives to helping the sea? What could it be about their personalities, life history, or character that makes them put the wellbeing of others, or the environment, over their pursuit of other things. Or, more importantly in terms of changing the future; why do so many people not get involved in humanitarian or environmental projects. How is it that they can overlook the suffering of other humans, animals, or entire ecosystems and do nothing?
For the most part, it is not because they lack empathy or don’t care. Indeed most people can see problems, and often complain about them. But why does that not lead to action?
Heteropsammia are a unique group of stony corals which do not attach to the substrate. These free living corals have a flat base, and live in calm sandy areas, usually in the depths outside of the coral reefs. With many of the species of Heteropsammia, the larvae settle down onto the shell of very small snails, which are then engulfed as the coral grows. They also have an obligate commensal relationship with a small worm, known as a sipunculid, which protrudes from a small hole in the bottom of the coral and helps the coral right itself, move around, and prevents it from being buried in the sand. Because this worm can also move the coral around, the corals are known in the aquarium trade as “Walking Dendros.”
Almost the entire upper portion of the 2.5 cm wide coral is a mouth, meaning that it is able to consume much larger prey than most other hard coral species. Being a coral which lives deep, this is an advantage as there is less light available at depth to power photosynthesis for the coral’s symbiotic algae. These corals thus rely more on predation than the functionally autotrophic corals of the shallow oceans. But what exactly do they eat is a question that is still being answered. Recently, on the island of Koh Tao in the Gulf of Thailand, the corals have been observed eating salps, an observation that was recently published in the Journal of Marine Biodiversity.
Coral reefs around the world are being lost at an alarming rate due to the localized effects of human activities, natural causes, and the global effects of climate change. One of the more unique methods used to restore and preserve corals in the face of oceans that are becoming warmer and more acidic is the use of electric artificial reefs, or Biorocks™. Biorocks™, or mineral accretion devices, were invented by Dr. Wolf Hilbertz, and use a process of sea electrolysis to improve the growing conditions for hard corals and other marine life. On these electrified structures, corals and other animals grow faster, and can better survive problems such as temperature changes, disease, predation, or ocean acidification. Corals growing on the devices not only are healthier than their natural counterparts, but also have a higher reproductive output – meaning more larvae to seed and restore damaged coral reefs nearby.
Although the technique was patented in 1996, the vital technology is not yet widely used around the world. Although the technology is not very complicated, it is more expensive than many other artificial reefs and requires regular maintenance, but that is not the main reason why you may have never seen or even heard of them. One of the major problems with the technology is that up until recently is has remained patented, trademarked, and proprietary information of the Biorock Company. Because of these ownership and patent restrictions, the technology has not been freely available to the reef managers and local communities who could have benefited most from its use. 19 years has essentially been lost, over which time tools that could have helped save reef areas and preserved coral diversity in places around the globe has been forestalled.