Gorgonians, or soft corals, are prevalent in certain high-energy zones of Cayman’s reefs.
Although they exist in many shapes, sizes, and colours, they have a common structural theme: Whether in the form of fans, whips, or feathery colonies, they all consist of a thin, flexible, calcareous covering of intermeshed splinters surrounding a central protein rod of gorgonin.
Polyps extend out perpendicular to, and around, each rod. Unlike their hard coral cousins, which have six (or multiples of six) smooth tentacles, soft coral polyps are tipped with eight pinnate or feathery tentacles. These polyps, which may be extended anytime, day or night, can use stinging cells to harpoon tiny prey, which may come too close.
Soft corals are prey to some specialised predators like fireworms, nudibranchs, and other small snails.
Tom Byrnes is the owner/operator of Cayman Marine Lab. He acquired his Coast Guard Captain’s Licence when he was a teenager and worked as a commercial fisherman in his youth. He got his first diving certificate in 1974 with the YMCA. He has worked in the local dive industry for more than 35 years and has a PhD in marine biology.