school of fish in background
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Coral Cap

The sanctuary animals we are asked about most often are those within recreational dive limits (0-130 ft, 0-40 m deep) or moving around on the water's surface, because they are the ones most often seen. We refer to these as coral cap species.

You may download a comprehensive list of the coral cap species, or use the links below to view different sections of the list from our website.

Stripes of white bacteria and salt on the brown seafloor Bacteria
Leafy green algae Algae
A purple sponge Sponges
Coral polyps Cnidarians (anemones, corals, jellies)
Helmet Comb Jelly Ctenophores (comb jellies)
Christmas tree worms on a coral head Annelids (worms)
A red shrimp perched near some leafy green algae Crustaceans (crabs, lobsters, shrimp)
A section of a branching red bryozoan Bryozoans
A murex Mollusks (clams, nudibranchs, oysters, snails, octopus, squid)
Ruby brittle stars tangled together on a coral head Echinoderms (sea stars, sea urchins, sea cucumbers)
bulb tunicates Tunicates
A blue and yellow fish Bony Fishes
A shark Cartilaginous Fishes (rays, sharks)
A sea turtle Reptiles (sea turtles)
A small bird perched on a railing with blue water visible behind Birds
A dolphin at the surface of the water Mammals (whales)

We have listed common names, when they are available. But since these may vary from one region or language to the next, we recommend using the scientific names for clarity.

Photos of the species are also provided, if available.

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Below the Cap

Below the coral cap, less light penetrates ocean waters and the species distribution changes. Many additional species are found in these parts of the sanctuary, including gorgonians and black corals.

To see some of what we've found in the deeper parts of the sanctuary, please visit the Photo Gallery at and select photos by FGBNMS/NURC-UNCW.

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weather report observations cool stuff get wet

Small, knobby corals in foreground; boulder of brain coral in background.  Long, fingery branches of purple sponge anchored in knobby corals and standing upright.
National Marine Sanctuary logo - a stylized whale tail above waves