Totems: Coral, Part 1 of 2

by Cie Simurro- Thunderbird Starwoman

You are drawn to me because of the intricacy and variety of my species. But know that your species is just as intricate, and certainly human beauty is exquisite. Perhaps your association with me will convince you of that as you take on my Medicine. Plant yourselves wherever you are. You belong; you are loved; you are eternal. Just as I plant myself in a skeletal cup, inhabit your own bodies; your own souls. For, if you learn to love and accept yourselves just as you are, you will also love your neighbors – human, animal, and plant. That is how the seemingly endless cycle of war, cruelty, and suffering, does in fact, end. Let yourselves be nurtured by Nature, the astounding designer of Life. Make your purpose in life be, to become Love.

Have you ever wondered about coral? Is it plant, mineral or animal? I remember the first time I heard that coral was animal. I thought of the pieces of coral in my house – brain coral from a visit to St. John’s Island, and beautiful orange coral on a necklace and earrings I’d bought in a store, thinking coral was mineral, for sure. If I had known they had been animals, would I have collected and bought them, promulgating, like the market for ivory, their harvest?

With their hardened surfaces, corals are sometimes mistaken for rocks. And, because they are attached to the seafloor, “taking root” as it were, they are often mistaken for plants. Unlike plants, though, coral does not make its own food. Corals are, in fact, animals. When I began my research on coral, the first thing I wanted to know was how coral went from living, moving, invertebrates with tentacles, to the calcified, rock-like structures I identified with the species, coral. How exactly does coral go from one form to the other? Patience, mes amis! We will get there.

Coral reefs are located in tropical oceans near the equator. The largest coral reef is the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The second largest coral reef can be found off the coast of Belize, in Central America. Other reefs are found in Hawaii, the Red Sea, and other tropical oceans. Some Hawaiian deep-sea corals are over 4,000 years old. The newest American National Park is in the territory of American Samoa in the South Pacific, and features over 4,000 acres of coral reefs and beaches. On the U.S. mainland, the warm, sub-tropical climate at the tip of Florida is where coral grows. In fact, the Florida Keys are a chain of hundreds of small islands that are made up of the skeletal remains of billions of coral animals that lived in large colonies, thousands of years ago, in that seawater. Over time, their skeletons build up into the structures we know as coral reefs.

Coral provides strong foundation energy. Those with this totem are often referred to by their friends and family as their “rock.” They are givers, and nurturers, who are indeed, rock solid. But if you know and love someone like that, make sure you also offer them support, and solace when they need it, for they are used to being the one who provides strength to others. They usually will not ask for help.

When alive, each polyp lays down a calcareous shell to sit in. These shells are made of aragonite, a chalky form of calcium carbonate. Coral builds its tube or fan-like home by secreting this limestone substance, which then hardens like rock. The tiny coral animals live inside their cylindrical homes under the ocean. Only the outer surface of the heads of coral harbor living polyps. When polyps die, their skeletons are left behind and used as foundations for new polyps. An actual coral branch or mound is composed of layer upon layer of skeletons, covered on top by a thin layer of living polyps.

Coral shows us that our futures are built upon the foundations of the past. Folks with coral totem love structure, for within structure they not only feel safe, on purpose, and valuable, but also find it safe to branch out into ever-expanding realms of creativity. Within sound structure, reliable change and transformation take place – especially in this new decade. Just as coral transitions through various life stages, if you have come across, or been gifted a piece of coral, or are visiting a place where coral abounds, remember to nurture your environment by being respectful and caring, especially as regards the harvesting of coral.

Coral captures its food with plume-like tentacles, which it extends from a tiny hole. Coral polyps use muscle fibers in the stalks to “lean” in any direction. Adjacent polyps are linked to one another by connective tissue. Tentacles surround a central mouth, through which food is taken in; waste is ejected through the same mouth. (What?) The mouth leads to the gut cavity. How does the sedentary coral catch its food? Its tentacles bear stinging cells called nematocysts, which are used to paralyze or kill prey. Nutrients diffuse through the gut lining into the tissues.

Reef-building corals live in colonies. They carry strong community/communal Medicine, just as indigenous peoples do. Typically, the reefs are found in shallow, clear water either around tropical coasts or on top of sea mounts, which are the summits of underwater volcanoes. Why there? Because coral requires the photosynthesis of abundant sunlight for symbiotic algae to provide them with nutrients. Most reef-building corals contain photosynthetic algae, called zooxanthellae, that live within most types of coral polyps. The coral provides the algae with a protected environment and compounds they need for photosynthesis. In return, the algae provide the coral with oxygen, and help removing wastes. Most importantly, zooxanthellae supply the coral with food (glucose, glycerol, and amino acids, which are the products of photosynthesis). The coral uses these products to make proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, and produce calcium carbonate.

In addition to providing corals with essential nutrients, zooxanthellae are responsible for the unique and beautiful colors of many stony corals. Sometimes when corals become physically stressed, the polyps expel their algae, and the colony takes on a stark white appearance. This is commonly described as “coral bleaching.” If the polyps go for too long without zooxanthellae, coral bleaching can result in the coral’s death.

Coral bleaching and ocean acidification are two climate-related impacts to coral reefs. Climate change is real, folks. Here’s how it works in reefs: the ocean absorbs about 1/3 of the atmosphere’s excess carbon dioxide, causing a more acidic ocean. Ocean acidification slows the rate at which coral reefs generate calcium carbonate, thus slowing the growth of coral skeletons. In addition, climate change causes sea level to rise, alters ocean circulation, and changes in the frequency, intensity, and distribution of tropical storms. All of these impacts have negative consequences for the health and diversity of reefs around the world.

Did you know that coral and zooxanthellae can both get sunburned? But some species of coral have fluorescent pigments, which act as a sunblock. Charles Mazel, of MIT, the leading investigator of coral fluorescence has hypothesized that fluorescence might someday be used to diagnose reef health.” He says, “It’s been suggested that fluorescence aids photosynthesis, or that it protects against too much ultraviolet light.” Actually though, this writer feels there’s something magical about coral absorbing ultraviolet light and then emitting wild, light-filled colors. Mazel agrees. He continues: “But there is a real possibility that corals fluoresce for no reason at all!” 

Depending on what kind of coral they are, reproduction can be either asexual or sexual. Corals reproduce asexually by budding or fragmentation. Through budding, new polyps “bud” off from parent polyps to form new colonies. In fragmentation, an entire colony (rather than just a polyp) branches off to form a new colony.

Coral sexual reproduction is an amazing biological phenomenon called mass spawning. Nature is so astonishingly brilliant. Mass spawning occurs on a particular night of the year. For hard corals, all individuals on the same reef synchronize their reproductive activity. First, sperm is released into the water by large numbers of individual polyps. The shedding is coordinated, so that the sperm emerges in clouds. Then, the eggs, which are released at around the same time, fuse with the sperm, and external fertilization takes place. Then, the larvae, called planulae, swim toward the surface of the water and drift away. Scientists can usually predict when this will happen, because this precise timing is related to the lunar cycle. A major characteristic of coral totem energy is a strong sense of perfect timing at each stage of a project. This enables things to get done without a lot of stress.

If you were on a dive on a night when mass spawning is expected, here’s what you might experience: You would be lying on a sandy bottom about ten feet down in the ocean. And you would wait. Meanwhile, you might be looking at all the beautiful coral around you. And you would wait some more – until suddenly you notice that tiny, whitish bubbles of transparent larvae are emerging from every pore of the coral you’ve been looking at. A living blizzard is floating up to the surface. Meanwhile, this sets off a big hullabaloo with the other reef residents. Squid, prawn, and large schools of fish start gobbling up as many of the eggs as they can, but they can’t eat them all. There are too many, and the current swiftly carries them away from the reef. Since the parent corals are completely sedentary, their offspring, which feed on even smaller plankton, drift with the currents, away from the parents, to the deep waters of the ocean where they begin another life and death struggle to survive being eaten. After a few days, they sink to the seabed, and if they find suitable rocks to fasten onto, they start a new colony. Once attached, they metamorphose into a coral polyp and begin to grow, dividing in half. As more and more polyps are added, a coral colony develops and eventually begins to reproduce.

For 45 years, Cie Simurro ~ Thunderbird Starwoman has been bringing forward the healing arts and ancient universal wisdom through writing, healing work, and teaching. For 19 years, she has been a contributing writer to Wisdom Magazine. For healing for you or your animal, spiritual training, or to purchase her book, Totems for Stewards of the Earth ($22 to PO 295, Shelburne Falls MA 01370), call 413 625-0385 or email: