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The Harsh Truth About Coral Reefs in Maui

When you think about coral reefs, do bright and vibrant colors come to mind? Chances are, the answer is yes, and you aren’t wrong at all. However, the coral reefs of Maui are quite different and sport more earthy colors. Some tourists think that these are dead coral reefs, but they are actually quite healthy and alive. To help you avoid some confusion, here’s what to expect when you look for coral reefs in Maui!

The Coral Reef of Maui

If you haven’t been snorkeling in Maui lately to see the coral reefs, then you may be disappointed to know that they are currently in a precarious situation. There is plenty of healthy coral to be found around the island, but it isn’t as colorful as you might expect. Part of this is simply due to the fact that the coral found around Hawaii is different than coral found in a place like the Caribbean.

If you were to snorkel in the Caribbean, you would see plenty of soft and bright coral reefs around that fit the stereotype well. In contrast, the coral of Hawaii is much harder and more neutral in color. Many coral reefs around Maui are actually brown, yellow, grey, and even purple! This coral is completely healthy, but there are still some coral reefs that are currently in a weak state. Not knowing the difference between the two may lead you to believe that all of the coral reefs are dead here, but that isn’t the case at all! 

A Recent Bleaching Catastrophe

Back in 2015, a majority of the coral found on several reefs in Hawaii died as a result of bleaching. More than half of all the coral reefs experienced bleaching and more than a quarter died as a result. This happened because the temperature of the ocean was significantly higher than usual. You don’t need to look much further than carbon dioxide emissions to know why the ocean is warming.

High ocean temperatures are particularly negative because they cause algae to die. Coral depends on the algae to provide energy and bleached coral is what happens when algae leaves/dies. Bleached coral is not necessarily dead, but it is a sign that it is extremely weak. If the coral is not given time to recover in cooler temperatures, it will eventually die without assistance from algae.  

Coral Reefs Are Recovering

Since the major bleaching in 2015, coral reefs have slowly recovered. The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii has been studying coral since the bleaching and have noted that many are improving. They looked at more than 14,000 colonies of coral spread across 20 different locations, most of which are now in a stabilized state. 

Cauliflower coral in particular suffered the most from bleaching, with more than 98% of all colonies experiencing bleaching in 2015. With the studies of The Nature Conservancy, they were able to identify that cauliflower coral were beginning to return to their normal state. This is critical because bleaching can become so severe that recovery is impossible, but this doesn’t seem to be the case for Maui’s coral. 

The Nature Conservancy also noted that the biggest factor in determining how well a coral reef can recover is how many stressors are impacting it. Only having one, yet severe, stressor like ocean temperature is usually manageable unless the coral is already weakened by other stressors. Beyond ocean temperature, pollution and fishing are two key contributors to coral bleaching. 

Another Bleaching Might Be Coming

Even though Maui’s coral reefs are doing a good job of recovering, there’s quite literally a storm on the horizon. As of August, ocean temperatures are actually higher than they previously were before the major bleaching that occurred in 2015. Some species of coral are already experiencing bleaching as a result of the increased temperature. It is not yet a foregone conclusion that there will be another coral bleaching, but the current conditions are all pointing to another, more severe, bleaching event if things do not change. 

What You Can Do

At this point it is too late to try and prevent increased ocean temperatures, but you can still do your point to help save Maui’s coral reefs! Here are three important things that you can do to help keep coral healthy and alive:

  • Safe Sunscreen – Hawaii has actually already banned the sale of sunscreen with toxic chemicals in it, but you may unknowingly bring some with you. Check the ingredients of your sunscreen and ensure that it doesn’t have oxybenzone or octinoxate. 
  • Avoid Touching – Some coral reefs are close enough for you to feel or even stand on, but this is actually harmful to the coral. Enjoy the beauty of coral reefs from a distance instead!
  • No Fishing – Refraining from fishing is also fairly important. Algae are crucial for keeping coral alive, but herbivorous fish are a necessity to keep the amount of algae in check. If algae runs rampant, coral won’t be able to withstand higher ocean temperatures. Cutting down on the number of herbivorous fish will directly hurt coral’s chances of survival.

Head into the Water for an Incredible View!

The waters of Hawaii and Maui are certainly home to some beautiful coral reefs. They may not be as colorful as what you’ll find in warmer climates, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t beautiful in their own right. Coral reefs are in a dangerous spot right now due to the bleaching from 2015, but they have slowly been recovering. Everyone must put in their best effort to help avoid another bleaching due to heightened ocean temperatures once again!

You can find coral reefs near just about every beach you see in Maui. What matters is just how accessible these reefs are! If you really want to see these gorgeous natural formations, then you need to check out the snorkeling tours offered at Kai Kanani. Our snorkeling routes place you in several awesome locations for seeing amazing coral reefs (and fish of course!). Don’t place yourself in danger by trying to climb down to the reefs yourself. Let us guide you to them instead!

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