Mass coral bleaching is linked to elevated sea surface temperatures, 1-2 degrees C above average, during periods of intense light. These conditions induce the expulsion of zooxanthellae from the coral host in response to photosynthetic damage in the algal symbionts. The mechanism that triggers this release has not been clearly established and to further our knowledge of this process, fluorescence rise kinetics have been studied for the first time. Corals that were exposed to elevated temperature (33 degrees C) and light (280 mumol photons m(-2) s(-1)), showed distinct changes in the fast polyphasic induction of chlorophyll-a fluorescence, indicating biophysical changes in the photochemical processes. The fluorescence rise over the first 2000ms was monitored in three species of corals for up to 8 h, with a PEA fluorometer and an imaging-PAM. Pocillopora damicornis showed the least impact on photosynthetic apparatus, while Acropora nobilis was the most sensitive, with Cyphastrea serailia intermediate between the other two species. A. nobilis showed a remarkable capacity for recovery from bleaching conditions. For all three species, a steady decline in the slope of the initial rise and the height of the J-transient was observed, indicating the loss of functional Photosystem II (PS II) centres under elevated-temperature conditions. A significant loss of PS II centres was confirmed by a decline in photochemical quenching when exposed to bleaching stress. Non-photochemical quenching was identified as a significant mechanism for dissipating excess energy as heat under the bleaching conditions. Photophosphorylation could explain this decline in PS II activity. State transitions, a component of non-photochemical quenching, was a probable cause of the high non-photochemical quenching during bleaching and this mechanism is associated with the phosphorylation-induced dissociation of the light harvesting complexes from the PS II reaction centres. This reversible process may account for the coral recovery, particularly in A. nobilis.