The World Below Your Boat

By Susan Shingledecker
Published: April/May 2012

As boaters, we become very familiar with the water's surface and its various waypoints and landmarks. Let's take a tour of the magnificent ecosystems living under our boats, learn how they're doing, and find out the safest ways to get a closer look.

Coral Reefs

Coral reefs may have you thinking of warm tropical waters off Florida, the Gulf Coast, or Hawaii, but coral can be found in cold waters as well. According to NOAA , shallow-water coral reefs occupy 110,000 square miles of sea floor, approximately the size of Nevada, accounting for less than 0.015 percent of the ocean floor, but they're home to more than 25 percent of the ocean's biodiversity. Coral reefs provide tremendous economic benefit through their value for fisheries, tourism, medical research, storm protection, and other environmental services. Coral reefs are currently under threat from climate change, unsustainable fishing practices, and land-based pollution.

Photo of a coral reef

Kelp Forests

Photo of a kelp forest

California is famous for its kelp forests. You're likely to encounter them on a cruise out to Catalina Island, but did you know there are kelp forests on the East Coast as well? Kelp is one of the fastest growing plants on each coast, growing a couple of feet a day in ideal conditions. Kelp grows in areas with rocky substrate in depths up to about 90 feet. Kelp needs clear waters to allow sunlight to penetrate the water column. Like a typical forest, kelp provides habitat for a variety of species. While kelp beds provide excellent fish habitat, never run your boat through kelp beds. They often look like flat patches on the water because the vegetation calms the wind and wave action at the water's surface. The dense fibers can wrap around your running gear; broken strands can clog water intakes; and long kelp strands can entangle novice divers.

Seagrass Beds

Seagrass beds are areas of submerged plants found growing in bays, lagoons, and shallow coastal waters. These plants anchor to the bottom with a rugged root structure allowing them to withstand strong currents and waves, and act as an excellent buffer during extreme storm events. Seagrass can be found as far north as Alaska and well into the tropics to the equator. They're considered the foundation of many coastal ecosystems, providing essential habitat and nursery areas for several species of fish. Between 70 and 90 percent of commercial fish spend part of their life in a seagrass habitat.

Photo of a seagrass bed with a fish swimming through it

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