Beyond the Seven Mile Bridge
A Painting by Christopher M. Still
Oil on Linen 48 x 126 in
Seaward of the Florida Keys lies a treasure whose value is beyond measure. It is Florida’s crown jewels a necklace of coral reefs that extend south of Miami to the Dry Tortugas. Beams of life giving sunlight penetrate clear waters and bring energy to the diverse multitude of plants and animals that can be found here. Brightly colored fishes dart in and out of this complex structure, while other creatures hover motionlessly cleverly camouflaged. Each forms a vital strand in a complex ecological web.
The Florida Reef Tract is the most extensive living coral reef system in North America the third largest in the world. And it all began with one tiny coral larva swimming about looking for a suitable home. Once settled and attached to the sea floor, the developing coral polyp excreted calcium to make a hard shell to live in. Eventually it grew, branched, and reproduced creating a colony of polyps that did the same. Over a time span of 7,000 years, these tiny creatures formed a foundation for the miraculous reef system of today.
Each individual coral polyp consists of a mouth encircled by tentacles that gathers food and defends it. Within the tissues of the corals live vast numbers of microscopic algal cells called zooxanthellae (zo-zan-thel-ee). In a true symbiotic relationship, the corals provide the tiny plants with a safe home, carbon dioxide and waste products that facilitate photosynthesis. In return, the zooxanthellae provide the corals with oxygen, remove waste, and supply organic materials that help each polyp live and grow.
Parrotfish nip at the coral, crushing and excreting it as sand. Sea urchins graze on algae, clearing a surface for new corals to grow. Damselfish pick, prune and plant a variety of algae in their own small gardens, while crabs and shrimp hide in tiny crevices from sea turtles and octopuses. Nothing is wasted.
Florida’s reefs provide housing, food, and shelter, as well as breeding and nursery grounds for a vast number of species many of economic importance. They are natural breakwaters, protecting coastal areas. And they are intricately and vitally linked to other ecosystems. Unfortunately, their health is in serious decline today as their corals weaken and die due to environmental and human caused stressors.
Life on land ultimately affects life in the sea and vice versa. Florida’s tourism, seafood, diving, boating, and fishing industries cannot thrive unless its marine environments are healthy and safeguarded. This is a vast challenge as well as a tremendous responsibility for today’s leaders. Florida’s coral reefs are fascinating to explore but essential to preserve.