National Geographic: Jewels of the Caribbean Sea

Synopsis:
Year:
1997
16 Views

Paradise, for some, is simply

an empty beach on a Caribbean island.

But for wild creatures this is not

a destination, but a dividing line.

Here the tranquil inland world

comes to an end and a far more

complex and surprising one begins.

Vast coral reefs and sandy plains

shimmer beneath

the crystal Caribbean Sea.

And the tropical sun illuminates

an array of living jewels.

Here are creatures rare and fantastic.

Here are figments of our nightmares

and flights of wonderful fancy

from our dreams.

In waters famed for hidden treasure,

another kind of wealth is

stunningly abundant.

Here, immersed in beauty and

subtle mystery, we now discover

the JEWELS OF THE CARIBBEAN SEA.

The largest living structures

on planet Earth are controlled from

outer space.

Every year, with uncanny precision,

the orbiting moon somehow

sets in motion the process of spawning

in coral reefs throughout the world.

The same response occurs at different

times in great coral reef systems

from the Red Sea to the Pacific

and greater Caribbean.

Tiny bundles of brain coral eggs

and sperm rise like miniature moons.

Millions of them flood the sea.

Different species of coral

respond in different ways.

Some corals are hermaphroditic

and release packages

that contain both eggs and sperm.

Other types release them separately.

It is all unbelievably

subtle and complex.

The great blooming mass of eggs

and sperm floats to the surface

where the eggs will be

fertilized and become larvae.

The larvae will drift,

sometimes for many weeks,

Before setting to be bottom and

perhaps beginning a new reef

a hundred miles away.

The result of a few minute coral

larvae given thousands of years

to grow and reproduce can be this

a city in the sea the glory

of the Caribbean.

It is home to creatures

as tiny as a single bacteria

as huge as the manta ray.

Coral reefs may be hundreds of feet

thick, many miles in length.

They are by far the largest structures

created by living creatures.

Yet they are made almost entirely from

the skeletons of tiny coral polyps,

some the size of a single pearl.

The living coral grows about

half an inch a year.

It lies upon the skeletons of

dead coral, layer upon layer.

Along the edge of the reef we are

seeing growth that took

thousands of years.

Twenty feet down we are on the reef

that Columbus might have seen.

At 85 feet we are

in the time of Christ.

At 180 feet we have reached

the time of the pyramids.

Around the reef great predators roam.

A Caribbean reef shark snaps up

the weak and the unwary.

These swift killers don't always

prevail. In slow motion a small snapper

makes a quick turn,

tumbles down the shark's back,

and slips off its tail.

Those that escape a shark may fall

victim to a black grouper.

But the coral city is a community of

strange alliances where the threat

of sudden death can be

mysteriously suspended.

This coral head is a special place.

It's called a cleaning station.

Tiny cleaner gobies cluster

near the base of the coral head.

The tiger grouper often visits here.

Trusting in an ancient and

mysterious relationship,

the gobies do not hesitate

at the tiger's mouth.

The gobies are allowed to crawl

all over,

feeding on parasites and dead tissue.

In return, every inch of the grouper

is sanitized and groomed.

Other cleaners have other clients.

This Pederson shrimp,

waving its white antennae,

is issuing an invitation

and is accepted by a Nassau grouper.

Cleaning is a striking example

of symbiotic behavior.

As a result of its service,

the cleaner is fed.

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