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Some people take up running. Others binge-watch series on digital platforms. As for me, to calm my mind, I have a penchant for diving around the gorgonian coral forest of the Caribbean Sea. Specifically, the sea fans of Cozumel.
To recover from diving, I dive. It’s crazy, I know. But it’s my way of finding tranquility. I reconnect when I see those sea fan corals swaying like colorful palm trees with their gentle shades of silver, blue, and purple. There’s no stress, no rush, no schedules to meet, no people to attend to. Just enjoyment, dreaming, and letting go.
This article, for me, is more than an essay about the subclass of Octorallia. It’s more like a written dive where you get to know the most beautiful gorgonian species of the Caribbean Sea. Are you up for it?
1. What Are Gorgonian Corals?
Gorgonians are incredible creatures that add a splash of color to the astonishing underwater world and resemble trees. When you see them, you might think they are exactly that, shrubs or plants, but they are not. Sea fans are corals, hence, animals.
Instead of the rigid calcium skeletons that hard corals have, gorgonian corals have a flexible internal skeleton made of protein. That’s why they are often called “soft corals.”
Sea fan gorgonians are like clubs. They are formed by colonies of polyps (mouths surrounded by 8 tentacles) of the same species, creating a unique structure that resembles fan-like shapes, dynamic sea whips, or even shrubs. They position themselves perpendicular to the currents to ensure oxygen and food for all members of the colony.
2. Distinctive Characteristics of Gorgonians Corals
Gorgonian corals have a sturdy yet flexible central stem covered in polyps. Multiple branches emerge from this central stem, connecting with each other to create a network that resembles a “pai pai” swaying with the current. Some species of gorgonian corals can reach heights exceeding 90 centimeters. They are anchored in place by a pedal that allows the colony’s base to expand.
The structures of gorgonian sea fans are adorned with tiny mouths, which are highly effective in capturing food, including bacteria and phytoplankton.
When it comes to their color palette, the spectrum is impressive. You’ll find gorgonians in shades ranging from yellow to various shades of red, including pink, orange, purple, and white.
The sea fan or gorgonian coral thrives in the Caribbean and the warmer waters of the Atlantic, from Bermuda and the Gulf of Mexico to Brazil, Florida, and the West Indies. You can also find them from the eastern coast of Africa to New Zealand and in the North Pacific.
When it’s time to create the next generation, fan-shaped corals release tiny sperm and eggs into the sea, which combine to form larvae. Carried by the current, these larvae seek their way to a suitable surface where they settle and become coral polyps. However, not all of them succeed. The outside world is harsh, and many do not survive the journey.
Those that do succeed will take years to mature and form entire reefs.
3. Why Fan Corals Are So Important for the Ecosystem
Let’s now dive into the waters of the Caribbean and explore the crucial role of sea fans, often referred to as the “trees of the sea.”
- Gorgonian corals function as architects of the underwater world, providing structure and shelter to a wide range of marine species. Just like trees on land, they play a vital role in maintaining balance. These fantastic creatures have an impressive lifespan and offer a stable and dependable environment for marine life. Many fish, crustaceans, and other marine creatures seek refuge and sustenance within the branches of these underwater corals and fans.
- Gorgonians act as coastal guardians, defending it against erosion with their intricate structures. The reef they help build is a natural aid in maintaining the integrity of the shoreline.
- Sea fan corals also serve as water purifiers. They filter and cleanse ocean water, improving the overall quality of the marine ecosystem. It’s like having a natural water treatment plant just beneath the waves.
However, gorgonian forests are threatened in some areas. The increasing presence of invasive algae, driven by rising water temperatures, is causing the degradation of these precious ecosystems.
4. 6 Types of Caribbean Sea Fans That Captivate Divers
COMMON SEA FAN
The common sea fan, also known as Venus sea fan coral, West Indian sea fan, and purple gorgonian, takes the form of a fan composed of a marvelous network of branches arranged in a single plane. This coral grows from a small base, giving rise to several main branches with lateral ramifications and an intricate network of smaller twigs. The common sea fan displays a color palette ranging from white to yellowish tones or pale lavender, which particularly stands out in its central nerve. It can reach an impressive height of up to 1.5 meters (almost 5 feet).
BIPINNATE SEA PLUME
This coral-gorgonian resembles an open fan of feathers displaying all its splendor. It develops on a structure that gives rise to two branches and typically extends in a single plane. This beauty can grow to a height of approximately 57 cm (22 inches!) with a slightly smaller width. Its branches are rigid, somewhat flattened, and usually measure between 25 and 40 mm in length and 1 to 1.5 mm in diameter.
SPINY ORANGE GORGONIAN
The Spiny Orange Gorgonian, a resilient gem that thrives in the warm Caribbean Sea, develops from sandy bottoms to sloping rocky surfaces and areas of perfectly balanced reefs. As its name suggests, it generally sports a rusty orange hue, but the branches can exhibit colors ranging from yellow to brown, with hints of amber, while its polyps are elegantly white. Its colonies are tall and dense, with uncomplicated branching, although they do expand laterally near the base, growing upwards. The polyps are tough, rough, and closely spaced, with pointed lower lips that catch the eye.
CORKY SEA FINGER
Briareum asbestinum is a species of gorgonian coral characterized by its branched appearance and a texture similar to cork. It can grow in colony form and reach considerable sizes. Its coloration ranges from brown tones to lighter shades, such as white or yellow. This gorgonian species is found in shallow waters, typically on coral reefs and rocky areas.
COLORFUL SEA WHIP
The Leptogorgia virgulata, or colorful sea whip, is like a stripped-down sea fan, with only its rods remaining. It stands out for its elongated and branched shape. This sea gorgonian sea fan has a unique appearance with polyps arranged in multiple rows along both sides. However, what truly grabs attention with this gorgonian coral is its diverse color palette. The stems can exhibit shades ranging from lavender to violet, through purple, red, orange, and yellow. Meanwhile, the polyps display a beautiful translucent white that perfectly contrasts with the colorful stems.
DEEP SEA FAN
The Iciligorgia schrammi is my favorite gorgonian sea fan species and a spectacle underwater. The Queen of gorgonians stands out for its impressive size. Its dichotomous branches, arranged in a single plane and separated from each other, give it a distinctive and bold appearance. When it comes to colors, Iciligorgia schrammi is a true diva. It can range from light brown to dazzling bright red. The polyps of this gorgonian coral protrude from the edges of the branches and feature sclerites, small hard structures arranged around them like a necklace with sharp projections. It thrives in the depths and can be found from 3 to 368 meters (9 to 1207 feet). You can encounter it on vertical walls and in the breaks of underwater slopes, defying gravity with its imposing presence.
If you, like me, seek tranquility, come and let yourself be lulled by the gorgonian forests of the Caribbean Sea. They await you with their dazzling colors and ecological significance. Contact us and discover the magic of sea fans and gorgonian corals hidden beneath the waves.