The bleaching of corals in response to increases in temperature has resulted in significant coral reef degradation in many tropical marine ecosystems. This bleaching has frequently been attributed to photoinhibition of photosynthetic electron transport and the consequent photodamage to photosystem II (PSII) and the production of damaging reactive oxygen species (ROS) in the zooxanthellae (Symbiodinium spp.). However, these events may be because of perturbations of other processes occurring within the zooxanthellae or the host cells, and consequently constitute only secondary responses to temperature increase. The processes involved with the onset of photoinhibition of electron transport, photodamage to PSII and pigment bleaching in coral zooxanthellae are reviewed. Consideration is given to how increases in temperature might lead to perturbations of metabolic processes in the zooxanthellae and/or their host cells, which could trigger events leading to bleaching. It is concluded that production of ROS by the thylakoid photosynthetic apparatus in the zooxanthellae plays a major role in the onset of bleaching resulting from photoinhibition of photosynthesis, although it is not clear which particular ROS are involved. It is suggested that hydrogen peroxide generated in the zooxanthellae may have a signalling role in triggering the mechanisms that result in expulsion of zooxanthellae from corals.