Theory suggests that the direct transmission of beneficial endosymbionts (mutualists) from parents to offspring (vertical transmission) in animal hosts is advantageous and evolutionarily stable, yet many host species instead acquire their symbionts from the environment (horizontal acquisition). An outstanding question in marine biology is why some scleractinian corals do not provision their eggs and larvae with the endosymbiotic dinoflagellates that are necessary for a juvenile's ultimate survival. We tested whether the acquisition of photosynthetic endosymbionts (family Symbiodiniaceae) during the planktonic larval stage was advantageous, as is widely assumed, in the ecologically important and threatened Caribbean reef-building coral Orbicella faveolata. Following larval acquisition, similar changes occurred in host energetic lipid use and gene expression regardless of whether their symbionts were photosynthesizing, suggesting the symbionts did not provide the energetic benefit characteristic of the mutualism in adults. Larvae that acquired photosymbionts isolated from conspecific adults on their natal reef exhibited a reduction in swimming, which may interfere with their ability to find suitable settlement substrate, and also a decrease in survival. Larvae exposed to two cultured algal species did not exhibit differences in survival, but decreased their swimming activity in response to one species. We conclude that acquiring photosymbionts during the larval stage confers no advantages and can in fact be disadvantageous to this coral host. The timing of symbiont acquisition appears to be a critical component of a host's life history strategy and overall reproductive fitness, and this timing itself appears to be under selective pressure.