American Oceans

What Happens to Sea Life During a Hurricane?

Whether you live underwater or on land, the consequences of hurricanes can be both far-reaching and devastating.

These low pressure cyclones bring heavy rain, winds and high currents as they churn across large bodies of water or land masses.

While hurricanes vary in size and strength, all of them gain their strength over oceans, which can oftentimes spell doom for the marine life which resides below the sea surface. So, what happens to sea life during hurricanes?

hurricane view from outer space

How does a hurricane affect sea conditions?

As hurricanes move across ocean water, they accumulate strength from the acquired moisture. This moisture is what holds the structure of a hurricane together and thus, creating the force behind the destruction.

These massive storms are infamous for generating supersize waves in their paths, sometimes as high as up to 18.3 meters

As a result of these waves, warm water from the surface mixes with colder, saltier water closer to the ocean floor, which can lead to severe disruption of the marine ecosystem that lies below. 

That isn’t even the worst of it, however, as sub-currents that branch off from the developing waves during a hurricane can reach depths as far down as 91.5 meters below sea level

Not only are these figures large, but present extremely hazardous conditions for sea life.

Sea life during a hurricane

Which types of sea life are most impacted by hurricanes?

Almost all types of sea life is affected in some way by the wrath of hurricanes. But no species takes the kind of beating during hurricanes that slow moving fish, turtles and shellfish do.

All of these species are relatively immobile, meaning that even if they can detect changes in water pressure or temperature ahead of a storm, they’re not quick enough to evacuate their habitats.

Additionally, these creatures can become overwhelmed by the sheer force of waves and currents produced by hurricanes, getting trapped beneath a vortex of wind and water.

Only compounding matters is a lack of oxygen that occurs underwater during a storm, in combination with rapid changes in ocean salinity (the amount of salt content in the water) that make living conditions erratic and essentially inhabitable for marine life that is unable to escape.

However, not all sea life suffers from every hurricane.

What type of sea life can survive a hurricane?

The larger the sea creature, the better their chances are of survival during an impending hurricane.

For example, a shark or whale can swim at a fast enough speed to elude storms, in addition to being developed enough to detect pressure changes in the water that give them an indication that evacuation is necessary, not totally unlike human beings.

Whether they choose to swim deeper under the water or just relocate to another body depends on the magnitude of the storm, but generally, larger sea animals are more adept at being able to survive hurricanes than their smaller counterparts.

Coral reefs

Do hurricanes affect coral reefs?

According to scientists, a hurricane’s impact on coral reefs is actually somewhat complicated.

Coral reefs play an important role in protecting coastlines from storm surge and other effects of hurricanes.

In fact, corals are resilient enough to withstand being shattered into pieces, instead using those fragments to “re-root” in a new area, typically as a result of hurricane-force winds ripping them apart.

Additionally, hurricanes are known to cool the water they leave behind, which happens to be extremely beneficial for corals that suffer as a result of global warming and higher ocean temperatures.

At the same time, though, hurricanes can split corals and deposit ocean debris upon them, which inflicts innumerable amounts of damage and in many instances, that debris can suffocate and kill them as well.

Corals also need sources of light for their survival, which the aforementioned ocean debris can block if it is positioned in a place where the sunlight normally shines through. 

Failure to receive adequate sunlight is extremely detrimental to a coral’s chances of surviving. In fact, sunlight might even be the most important factor to a coral’s survival, with ocean temperature being another significant factor.

The good news? Coral reefs that are dismantled by hurricanes can recover in close to two decades. 

If not for damaging human activities, though, that recovery time could be even shorter, which serves to illustrate the point that humans actually impact coral reefs more than hurricanes do.

Final thoughts

No matter how you look at it, hurricanes can cause a sizable amount of damage to both land and sea ecosystems.

The type of impact that hurricanes have on sea life, specifically, is dependent upon the type of creature in danger. 

Smaller creatures don’t have a high survival rate during these storms, while larger creatures have the ability to escape harm’s way. 

As for coral reefs, their ability to weather a storm is more of a mixed bag. 


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