Reef coral assemblages are highly dynamic and subject to repeated disturbances, which are predicted to increase in response to climate change. Consequently there is an urgent need to improve our understanding of the mechanisms underlying different recovery scenarios. Recent work has demonstrated that reef structural complexity can facilitate coral recovery, but the mechanism remains unclear. Similarly, experiments suggest that coral larvae can distinguish between the water from healthy and degraded reefs, however, whether or not they can use these cues to navigate to healthy reefs is an open question. Here, we use a meta-analytic approach to document that coral larval swimming speeds are orders of magnitude lower than measurements of water flow both on and off reefs. Therefore, the ability of coral larvae to navigate to reefs while in the open-ocean, or to settlement sites while on reefs is extremely limited. We then show experimentally that turbulence generated by fine scale structure is required to deliver larvae to the substratum even in conditions mimicking calm back-reef flow environments. We conclude that structural complexity at a number of scales assists coral recovery by facilitating both the delivery of coral larvae to the substratum and settlement.