For scientists, the origins of this ecological bonanza represent what Old Dominion University marine researcher Kent Carpenter calls "one of the greatest evolutionary and biogeographical mysteries." For some 2.5 million fishermen in the region, the triangle represents their livelihood; among its other attributes, the Coral Triangle is the maternity ward for Pacific and Indian Ocean tuna. And for conservationists, the Triangle represents an important source of raw materials needed to reseed reefs inside and outside the region damaged by bleaching – which many researchers attribute at least in part to global warming.
The challenge, Dr. Carpenter explains, is that "the Coral Triangle in particular has a fairly high percentage of reefs that have been destroyed over the past 20 or so years." The area experienced severe bleaching during the 1997-98 El Niño, one of the strongest in the 20th century. But it also faces other problems. The use of dynamite as a fishing aid, and even the practice of banging corals with rocks to drive fish into nets, "is quite prevalent," he adds. Moreover, some 150 million people live within what might be called the triangle's greater metropolitan area, providing a source of pollution that also undermines corals' ability to survive.
Here amid the shallow-water coral formations off Nusa Lembongan, those pressures seem remote, despite the handful of resorts nestled in the nearby cove. With a diving mask as a picture window and fins for propulsion, visitors' views take in corals that branch, spread platelike, or lay like arrays of flattened cabbage leaves daubed in pastel greens, purples, pinks, and muted russets. A giant clam is half buried near the base of one coral head, while sergeant major fish, surgeonfish, and schools of anthias flit past.