It's not just the fish and marine life which make coral reefs so inviting to the human eye, it's also the unique textures, colours and movements of the corals themselves.
From delicate gorgonian fans to reef-building hard corals, here are 18 stunning coral reef species not to miss.
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The main types of coral
There are about six thousand species of coral around the world. These can be broken down into two groups – hard and soft.
The difference between hard and soft corals can be determined by checking the number of tentacles each polyp has.
Every coral species is made up of hundreds to thousands of these polyps, they are tiny and usually no greater in diameter than half an inch.
Soft coral polyps always have eight tentacles, while hard coral polyps have multiples of six tentacles.
Soft corals look like colorful plants and unlike hard corals, are not involved in reef-building since they do not produce the hard calcified skeleton necessary.
Hard Coral Types
Staghorn coral is one of the most important types of coral reef species in a coral reef ecosystem.
Not only are these reef-building hard corals one of the fastest growing, they also provide a sheltered home to a vast array of marine animals.
The Staghorn coral is recognised by its pointed, textured branches which form dense coral gardens usually found in shallow waters.
Unfortunately, this does pose a significant threat to the Staghorn coral species, as it is largely affected by global warming, and especially coral bleaching.
These stony reef-building corals grow in colonies across the Indo-Pacific and thrive in shallow coral reefs in depths of up to 20 metres.
Leaf Corals grow upwards in an unusual conical shape, and their giant ruffled edges make them look like big cabbages.
They feed on plankton and are most commonly found in muted colours such as yellow, green and brown.
The Leaf Coral offers a sheltered habitat for a wide variety of marine life, as reef fish use their large plate-like structures to hide away from predators.
The Elkhorn has to be one of the most striking types of coral reef species.
Its spectacular antler-like features stand out from other types of coral reef species, and are an impressive sight for any snorkeler or diver.
This stony reef-building coral was once considered one of the most abundant corals found on coral reef eco systems throughout the Caribbean.
However, the Elkhorn Coral is now a critically endangered species due to global warming and coral bleaching.
Soft Coral Types
The stunning Carnation Coral species, or Dendronephthya can be found on coral reefs around the Red Sea, Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific.
The Carnation Coral thrives in areas with strong current, and usually grow on walls or underneath rocky overhangs.
When the current is running, these corals expand and bloom to feed, but when there is no current, they droop down.
Their branch-like stems are pearly white, while their carnation-flower shaped heads come in pink, red, orange and yellow.
This range of vibrant shades make the Carnation one of the most eye-catching and photogenic types of coral reef species.
Bubble Coral, or Plerogyra sinuosa are one of the most intriguing types of coral reef species.
Usually found in sheltered areas at depths of 3-35 meters, the Bubble Coral is often mistaken for fish eggs.
During the day, these white/skin coloured polyps resemble bubbles or even a bunch of grapes, but at night the little balloons deflate, allowing for their tentacles to protract and hunt for food.
Bubble Corals can be found in coral reef locations such as the Red Sea and Indian Ocean to the mid-Pacific.
Venus Sea Fan Coral
One of the most elegant types of coral reef species, is the Venus Sea Fan.
Found predominantly in the Bahamas and the West Indies, this beautiful soft coral is made up of an intricate network of branchlets which grow from a small base.
The Venus Sea Fan Coral comes in shades of off-white, yellow and lavender.
Their preferred habitat is shallow waters with strong waves at a maximum depth of 10 metres, making them a coral reef species that can be enjoyed by both snorkelers and divers alike.
Sea Whip Coral
The svelte whip-like branches of the Sea Whip Coral come in a range of eye-catching colours including red, orange, yellow and purple.
This coral reef species are usually found in deeper waters, living on walls and rocks, growing up to 3 feet.
If you are a keen macro spotter, look out for the minuscule whip coral shrimp, which reside on the branches of this coral reef species.
Sun Corals, or Tubastaea thrive in coral reef locations across the Red Sea, Indo-Pacific, Western Indian Ocean and the Southern Pacific.
They usually live underneath dark overhangs and inside caves where there are nutrient-rich waters and strong currents.
During feeding, the tentacles of this coral will extend from their tubular base and fully open, ready to receive plankton.
These cheerful organisms can be found in an array of bright colours ranging from shades of yellow, orange, red and pink.
Fox Corals, also known as Jasmine coral or Nemenzophyllia, are one of the most attractive coral reef species.
These ruffled polyps range in colour, from light pink through to greeny blue hues.
Although they are not classed as a species under threat, the Fox Coral is still relatively rare in the wild and usually reside in coral reefs around the Indo-West Pacific from the Philippines to Papua New Guinea.
You will find Fox Corals living on sheltered coral reefs and underneath rocky overhangs for protection.
Organ Pipe Coral
The Organ Pipe Coral, or Tubipora Musica is a species that is perhaps better appreciated in person.
Although this coral reef species is classed as a soft coral, they have a hard skeleton which houses each individual soft tube.
Every one of these tubes has a feathery head of tentacles, which are used to feed on plankton.
Watch in awe as these mesmerising tentacles open and close in unison.
Organ Pipe Corals are found in shallow waters, and prefer sheltered areas.
They live in the tropical waters of coral reefs in the Indian and Pacific oceans.
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