Traveling under water – without leaving land

Coral reefs are among the most beautiful and complex ecosystems in the world. However, most people will never experience moving through one because unless you are in the right location and have specialized training and equipment, it is physically impossible to visit a coral reef.

So how can most people relate to something they cannot directly ecperience themselves? How do we work to develop an awareness of the beauty and need to protect coral reefs around the world? Or to put it another way, how do we make something like that accessible to a larger number of people?

This image shows large rocks around which various succulents have been planted to mimic the topology of a coral reef
A picture of the succulent garden coral reef (taken by author)



The folks at the UC San Diego Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation have found an innovative answer to this question. They have developed a living coral reef- on land – that the public can walk through and explore. How do you create a coral reef on land? Well, you start by finding the perfect coral analogy. In this case, succulents.

But wait, I hear you say, succulents are plants, and coral are actually animals. Yes, that’s correct, however, succulents have forms that closely resemble that of many coral species. When an individual plant doesn’t quite reflect the coral it’s meant to portray, sometimes multiple plants can be grouped together to show what a similar-looking coral species may look like. The succulents are planted within and alongside rock formations to illustrate how coral would grow in a similar undersea environment. This allows people to walk along stone pathways and imagine what a coral reef would look like through the power of visualization.

In my opinion, the “coral reef succulent garden” at UC San Diego is a triumph of science communication. It takes a complex topic – the way coral grows in a reef, finds an appropriate analogy – succulents, and allows people to learn in a concrete and experiential way. It thus increases access to scientific information, and potentially inspires the conservation of these vulnerable habitats. After all, people are more likely to want to protect what they have personal experience with.

The “coral reef succulent garden” is used to teach school groups, and used as a public access education tool for users of the trail network on which the garden is located. It combines, art, science and botany into a multi-sensory experience. The staff at the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation are justifiably proud of the garden. I’m impressed at the creativity of this initiative and would love to see more like it.

Traveling under water – without leaving land

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