Secret Cities of the Sea

O N C A Visits… The Natural History Museum’s ‘Coral Reefs: Secret Cities of the Sea’

By Emily Cowan, Volunteer

The Natural History Museum’s current exhibition Coral Reefs: Secret Cities of the Sea transports you to an environment more bustling and vibrant than Borough Market, but with even more fish. Dive in at the deep end via a trio of giant screens that create a virtual reef experience, allowing you to get up close and personal with the turtles, and swim amongst the seahorses. Study Darwin’s original maps locating these diverse ecosystems. And lastly, gaze in wonder at an aquarium that holds more water than 40 bathtubs, full of live corals and exotic fish.

Despite the breath-taking natural beauty and comical comparisons of the coral reefs to our own societies (the giant barrel sponge plays the role of bin man, and the pink skunk clownfish the security guard), the exhibition addresses the darker side to coral reefs, which must not be forgotten amongst the colour. These secret civilisations are under threat, and their gradual destruction will have catastrophic consequences.

Coral reefs are home to 25% of all marine species, and provide food and resources for over 500 million people whilst protecting our shorelines from waves, storms and floods. Yet we continue to damage them through overfishing, polluting the oceans and coastal development.

Climate change is another serious threat, for when sea levels and temperatures rise or fall too much the specific environment needed by coral reefs is consequently disturbed. If oceanic temperatures change too drastically, or coral becomes overexposed to sunlight and air during extreme low tides, then algae abandons the coral tissue. This results in coral bleaching, and as algae provide the colour and main source of food for corals, bleaching effectively means coral starves to death.

The exhibition’s message is clear: we must actively prevent the destruction of coral reefs. Not only for the incredible array of species living in these ecosystems, but also for the vital role they play in protecting the seas and land. The more parts of the world that become Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), the lower the threat to coral reefs, as harmful fishing techniques are prohibited, and pollution and coastal development better regulated.

We can all help by choosing to instead purchase sustainably sourced fish, and being generally conscious of what and how much we consume. By becoming more aware of the ways in which our personal choices affect the planet, we can choose to live more sustainably and try as best we can to not contribute to climate change.

Coral reefs, like many other parts of the natural world, need to be protected from the negative impact that human living has on the environment. These secret cities are not ours to disturb.

Coral Reefs: Secret Cities of the Sea will be running at The Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London until 13 September 2015.

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