This page will help you tell the difference between what live vs dead coral looks like. With rising ocean temperatures, damage from tourism, and overfishing, it’s estimated that 25%-50% of the world’s corals reefs are already dead, up to 75% have suffered bleaching events, with the remainder at risk. Finding a live healthy coral reef is actually becoming rare.
Many people have their first snorkeling experience at popular tourist locations like Hanauma Bay, Oahu in Hawaii, or Trunk Bay in St. John. Since most of the coral at these locations is dead many new snorkelers may not realize what they are missing, or what live vs dead coral looks like.
Coral Looks Like a Stone or Plant, But It Is a Colony of Animals
Coral is like the forest of the sea, except it is not a plant, it is a colony of animals (called polyps).
These little animals live in a symbiotic relationship with algae, and they build tiny calcium stone houses for themselves. And all of these houses get stacked on top of each other and form larger structures like apartment buildings or termite hills. These can take many different shapes that might look like hard rock boulders, or branches. They can also form flexible structures that can move with the currents of water. In the closeup picture you can see the structure of their calcium houses. The animals are withdrawn inside. Many corals only come out at night to feed, although there are some exceptions.
For example the first picture below is a leather coral (partially bleached), and the animals are mostly retracted. The next picture shows the animals out feeding.
Here is an excellent article that explains coral animals.
It’s sometimes hard to think of corals as animals, but they are. They often feed on zooplankton that they pull inside and digest in stomachs. Aquarium owners often feed their corals with brine shrimp.
What Live Vs Dead Coral Looks Like
Check out the pictures below. These are just a few samples of some common corals that can be seen in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
Compare what live vs dead coral looks like. Look at the color and shape. Old dead corals will be broken down, and lack a healthy color, and are sometimes covered in algae.
Corals that have been bleached from rising ocean temperatures turn white when the symbiotic algae leaves the coral. In some rare circumstances these may recover if the algae returns.
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Dead or Dying Elkhorn Coral
Live Elkhorn Coral
Foggy Masks, Fin Blisters and Angry Snorkels!
Poorly fitting, cheap gear, can ruin your trip. See our snorkeling equipment reviews and fitting suggestions to make sure your next trip is great.
Dead, Unhealthy, or Damaged Brain Coral
Live Brain Coral
Unhealthy Sea Fan Corals
Only the center purple fan looks relatively healthy in the picture below. Soft corals like these also have tiny polyps that feed on microorganisms in the water.
Live Sea Fan Coral
Dead Staghorn Coral
Live Staghorn Coral
Have You Seen These Guided Snorkel Travel Adventures?
Bleached Table Coral, Soon to Be Dead
Mix of Live and Bleaching Table Corals
Bleaching Boulder Coral
Live Boulder Coral
Live vs Dead Coral – Cauliflower Side by Side
Algae Sometimes Takes Over a Dead Reef
When you are trying to see if something is live vs dead coral, one way to tell is that dead coral often becomes covered in algae like in the picture below.
Corals Are Critical for Healthy Oceans
Corals clean the oceans, provide habitat, and are food to countless other species. And we are seeing a global mass extinction on a scale that is terrifying for not only ocean health, but human fisheries. Without coral reefs, human jobs and food sources are rapidly declining.
So the next time you are out snorkeling, and see some beautiful fish, like in the pictures below, make sure and look behind at the coral, and take note of its condition. The corals are 95% dead in the two pictures below. Without corals, you can expect the ocean’s entire ecosystem to be stressed and declining.
What Can You Do?
Helping prevent the continued destruction of coral reefs is pretty easy, on a personal level at least.
- Learn to recognize the live vs dead coral on the reef.
- Only use sunscreens that don’t kill reefs, or wear a full body rash guard.
- Don’t touch or kick coral, use good reef etiquette.
- Fight the human causes of global warming any way you feel you can. Support an ocean charity and vote for good policies.