Diseases are causing alarming declines in reef-building coral species, the foundation blocks of coral reefs. The emergence of these diseases has occurred simultaneously with large increases in the abundance of benthic macroalgae. Here, we show that physical contact with the macroalga Halimeda opuntia can trigger a virulent disease known as white plague type II that has caused widespread mortality in most Caribbean coral species. Colonies of the dominant coral Montastraea faveolata exposed to algal transplants developed the disease whereas unexposed colonies did not. The bacterium Aurantimonas coralicida, causative agent of the disease, was present on H. opuntia sampled close to, and away from diseased corals, indicating that the alga serves as a reservoir for this pathogen. Our results suggest that the spread of macroalgae on coral reefs could account for the elevated incidence of coral diseases over past decades and that reduction of macroalgal abundance could help control coral epizootics.