A Compendium of Corals


World Atlas of Coral Reefs. Spalding, M. D., C. Ravilious, and E. P. Green . 2001 . The University of California Press , Berkeley, California . 424 pp. $45.00. ISBN 0-520-23255-0 .

Coral reefs are among the most biologically diverse regions of the world. Along with rainforests, coral reefs represent some of the most readily identifiable ecosystems on the planet. As we are awed by the spectacular diversity of the shapes and colors of rainforest avifauna, so too are we inspired by the myriad of colors and often bizarre forms of tropical reef denizens. Rainforests and coral reefs inspire us not only because of their beauty but also because until relatively recently they have been inaccessible to only the most hardy adventurers. With the development of self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA) and the jet engine, however, coral reefs are no longer inaccessible; todays' most popular holiday destinations often lie on the fringes of coral reefs.

Coral reefs span all the worlds' oceans 30o north and south of the equator. These communities form massive structures easily visible from space. The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, is the largest continuous reef system in the world, stretching for 2000 km from north to south. It is perhaps the most well known of all coral reef ecosystems. Elsewhere, coral reefs have formed massive rings known as atolls that rise out of the oceans depths. Atolls protect and nurture the organisms that live within their turquoise lagoons.

The diversity of marine life that inhabits coral reef ecosystems is mind-boggling. To date, approximately 90,000 coral-reef organisms have been identified, ranging from delicate soft corals (Alcyonacea) to giant double-headed parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum). However, recent estimates put the total number of organisms associated with coral reefs at somewhere between 1 and 3 million species!

Sadly, all does not bode well for the worlds' coral reefs. I recently heard distinguished coral taxonomist Dr. John Veron on national radio describing some of the environmental and human effects on coral reefs today. Runoff from forest clearing, land erosion, explosive fish bombing, pollution, and overfishing are a few of the major human-caused threats to coral reef biodiversity. Perhaps more important, Veron discussed the dramatic effect of the 1997–1998 El Niño–Southern Oscillation event. Veron reported how, during 1998, mass coral bleaching occurred. In some areas up to 90% of all corals died, which has been attributed to a rise in water temperature of as little as 1–2° C. Although Veron continued to say this was indeed an unusual warm-water event, predictions suggest that the extreme conditions in 1998 will likely be the average conditions in 20 years time, and within 50 years they will represent “good” years.

World Atlas of Coral Reefs provides us with a timely reminder of the fragility of coral reefs, and it is packed with information. Yet there is no pretense of providing readers with an authoritative identification guide to organisms of the worlds' coral reefs. This simply is not possible in 400 some pages. The authors also do not intend to bedazzle the reader with excessive scientific jargon. This book is instead an excellent introduction to the world of coral reefs. There are three introductory chapters summarizing what coral reefs are, their diversity, their importance, and the threats they face. Within these pages is an overview of the plants and animals that make up coral reef ecosystems and an informative section on human impacts and how they affect coral reefs. Ultimately, the authors' purposes are to provide the reader with the location and description of coral reefs throughout the world and to review the coral reefs of each country, describing for each ecological features, human uses, and impacts, and conservation status.

The remainder of the book is presented as an atlas, broken down into three sections: Atlantic and Eastern Pacific oceans, Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia, and Pacific Ocean. Within each section are chapters dealing with the details of specific regions, complete with accurate maps illustrating in detail the locations of coral reefs, conservation areas within these reefs, and dive centers. This last inclusion is useful, particularly because this book is designed to be a practical guide for those wishing to visit coral reef regions as either tourists or researchers. Dive centers are often the only point of access for many remote regions. Brief summaries of the socioeconomic status of each country also are included, as are its percentage of reefs at risk, coral diseases, and an overview of the sizes of coral reefs and the species diversity of those reefs.

Having lived in Indonesia and traveled extensively throughout Southeast Asia and Papua New Guinea, and being of Antipodean extraction, I found this book well researched. I enjoyed perusing the index, wondering if Madang on Papua New Guineas' north coast or Gunung Api in Banda, Indonesia, two places I have visited to dive on the reefs, were worthy of a mention. Similarly, I wondered if the Houtman Abrolhos, a small archipelago in Western Australia where I spent 10 years studying sea bird ecology, would also be included. Not only was I pleasantly surprised, but the information on each of these small areas was accurate and well researched.

I do have one criticism, however. Perhaps I have a hemispherical insecurity complex, but I thought the southern hemisphere was poorly represented in terms of its contribution to coral reefs. The authors clearly state that, after Indonesia, there are more coral reefs by area in Australia—50,000 km2, or 17% of the total—than anywhere else in the world. Yet only 5% of this book is devoted to this massive region. This trend is evident in other books chiefly researched by northern-hemisphere-based authors and tends to reflect population bases rather than the significance of each area. For example, the entire Atlantic including the Caribbean takes up 20% of this edition, yet its coral reefs cover only 8% of the global total. True, the Caribbean is close to North America, and its proximity makes this book a must for the many North Americans who visit this area each year.

World Atlas of Coral Reefs is beautifully presented. High-quality photographs of coral reefs and their residents are generously scattered throughout. In addition there are many excellent images of coral reefs taken from space, which provide a wonderful representation of the diversity of coral-reef shapes and patterns, from the ribbon-like fringing reefs of Australia to the pothole formations of the Maldives. The book is well organized and easy to read. Although it is an unlikely cover-to-cover read, it certainly admirably meets its aim to be a guide to the coral reefs of the world. With visitors to coral reefs likely to increase dramatically in this age of globalization, this book provides for the discerning traveler, conservationist, or researcher a useful, informative guide to coral reefs, their inhabitants, and the threats they face.