These snorkeling mecca’s protectors are doing it right.
Bonaire National Marine Park
Bonaire gets — and deserves — a lot of credit for its commitment to the protection of its marine environment. The Marine Park, which surrounds the island from the high-water mark down to 200 feet, was pioneered by a diver (the famous Captain Don Stewart) back in 1979 and has been supported by diver contributions since 1990. There’s great snorkeling around most of the island (look for the yellow shore-dive markers), but standouts include Sorobon in Lac Bay, 1,000 Steps, Karpata, and Klein Bonaire. In some places, the hard corals grow right to the surface, and there are still healthy stands of elkhorn swarming with fish. The annual fee is $25 for divers, $10 for snorkelers. bmp.org
Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve
Glover’s Reef is one of the Caribbean’s rare atolls, lying some 30 miles off the Belize coast and forming a large, protected link in the vast Mesoamerican Barrier Reef (locally called the Belize Barrier Reef). Created in 1993 and named a World Heritage Site in 2000, the reserve encompasses the entire atoll, down to the 100-fathom line, with no-take areas where grouper spawn, and zones that allow sustainable indigenous fishing or snorkeling and diving. Inside the atoll’s 80-square-mile lagoon, 700 coral patch reefs provide endless snorkeling and common sightings of turtles, sharks and rays. The Wildlife Conservation Society (wcs.org) operates a research station on Middle Caye, and visitors can stay at a rustic eco-resort on Long Caye (slickrock.com).
Sapodilla Cayes Marine Park
At the southern end of Belize, 40 miles offshore from Punta Gorda, the 14 sandy isles of Sapodilla make up the elbow of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef as it bends toward Honduras. Extensive spur-and-groove coral formations (including elkhorn) run seaward of the islands, and atop the reef crest and inside the lagoons, corals grow almost to the surface, providing limitless shallow snorkeling. Endangered hawksbill sea turtles nest on Hunting Caye, and it’s common to see turtles as well as nurse sharks, rays and all the ornamental reef fish. Accommodations in Punta Gorda, such as the Coral House Inn (coralhouseinn.net), can arrange local guides for the trip out to the cayes.
Bloody Bay Marine Park
With its tiny population and scant development, Little Cayman has seen virtually no human-caused damage to its reefs — and marine park status ensures continued protection of one of the world’s most spectacular underwater attractions: Bloody Bay, on the north coast. Snorkelers here have the rare opportunity to swim over a coral cliff. Floating in the clear water at a site called Three Fathom Wall, you watch fish milling around the bottom in 18 feet of water. Fin a few yards north, and the bottom drops straight down 1,000 feet. The walls of Bloody Bay are festooned with healthy creatures - tangles of rope sponges, gigantic barrel sponges and webs of soft corals. caymanislands.ky
Los Roques Archipelago National Park
These 50 islands poking out of crystal-blue waters 90 miles east of Bonaire are ringed with reefs and softened by vast coral-sand flats and turtle-grass beds swarming with bonefish. Only one of the islands, Gran Roque, is inhabited, and it’s there that visitors base themselves in small posadas that line the island’s few sand streets. Snorkelers and divers head out with local guides in small boats to explore surrounding islands and their practically virgin reefs, which received protected status in 1972 and continue to be among the healthiest and most biodiverse reefs in the Caribbean. The farther south from Gran Roque, the better the reefs. losroques.org; ecobuzos.com (for scuba divers)
Soufriere/Scott’s Head Marine Reserve
As if swimming inside a volcano isn’t cool enough, snorkelers visiting the southern tip of Dominica can toast to the success of this marine reserve by floating in Champagne — one of the Caribbean’s most unique sights. Volcanic gases gurgling up through the rocky seabed give the shallow dive site its name, and you can join parrotfish and juvenile tropicals swimming though the bubbly backdrop. Another great snorkel spot in the reserve (established in 1998 after a campaign by local high-school students) is the top of Scott’s Head Wall, on the rim of a submerged crater, with views of supersized gorgonians, sponges and brain corals. $2 park fee; dominica.dm
St. Vincent + the Grenadines
Tobago Cays Marine Park
Yachties know the protected waters of the Tobago Cays as one of the Caribbean’s most idyllic anchorages. In 1997, the five uninhabited cays and the spectacular Horseshoe Reef that guards four of them received their own protection with marine park status. Charter boats snug into the calm behind the reef and find fabulous snorkeling on the back-reef patches, the shallow reef crest and, especially, on either side of “Dinghy Pass,” which cuts through to the outside of the reef.
Soufriere Marine Management Area
SMMA is often noted as one of the world's most successful marine parks at bringing together various stakeholders, including local fishermen, landowners and water-sports operators. Established in 1995, the park covers two terrific snorkeling areas. At Anse Cochon (Bay of Pigs), patch reef starts in just 5 feet of water, and snorkelers often spot turtles and eels. Farther south, beneath the gaze of St. Lucia’s famous Pitons, Anse Chastanet Reef (ansechastanet.com) is the island’s best fish-and-critter-watching spot. Coral Gardens offers a unique view: Look down to see healthy reef; look up and Gros Piton towers above you. Park fees are $5 for divers, $1 for snorkelers. stlucia.org
Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park
Established way back in 1959 by the Bahamas National Trust, this collection of tiny cays surrounded by coral reefs bathed in electric-blue water is the oldest land-and-sea park on the planet. Determined to give the area the highest level of protection so that “only osprey” would fish here, the government upped the ante in 1986 by declaring the 176-square-mile sanctuary a no-take zone. The protection has been so successful (conch populations are 31 times higher than in the surrounding area; grouper and lobsters that breed here are repopulating the archipelago), it’s become a model for other refuges worldwide. It's accessible only by boat; snorkelers and divers can base at Staniel Cay Yacht Club (stanielcay.com) or Sampson Cay (samp soncayclub.com) or take a live-aboard cruise (aquacat.com).
Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve
The Western Hemisphere’s four atolls (three in Belize, one in Mexico) are by nature isolated, miles offshore, making them less subject to pollution than coastal reefs. Thirty miles long, Chinchorro Bank (protected since 1996) is the Caribbean’s largest atoll, a ring of reef and coral islands surrounding a lagoon. It lies 19 miles off Costa Maya and Mahahual in the southern Yucatán. Weather permitting, snorkelers and divers make the 90-minute run to the atoll to see Mexico’s richest reef ecosystem, including elkhorn growing right to the surface, black coral “trees” as shallow as 30 feet, genius-sized brain corals, and barrel sponges as big as the spinning tea cups at Disney World. There are also dozens of wrecks, and to prevent looting, only snorkeling is allowed on them. dreamtimediving.com
The State of the reefs
My first dives into the Caribbean Sea were a wonder. Soaring branches of elkhorn coral glowed terra cotta in the sunlight and grew in vast thickets, making the dive experience akin to floating through an enchanted forest. Huge schools of electric-blue tangs and cartoon-colored parrotfish flitted amid the coral “trees” while massive Nassau groupers each lorded it over their neck of the woods. On night dives, the sand around the reefs was literally carpeted in a prickly, black shag of long-spined sea urchins that had tip-toed out of daytime reef shelters to begin their nocturnal grazing.
If you’ve never snorkeled or dived on a Caribbean coral reef and go tomorrow, you will be overwhelmed just as I was — and still am — by the beauty and incredible diversity of marine life. That’s not, however, because the reef is the same. The amount of living coral is less than half what it was 25 years ago, the elkhorn and grouper have largely disappeared and seaweeds are taking over. In many areas, the reef looks like a monochrome version of its old self — as if The Wizard of Oz were running backward, changing scenes from Technicolor to black and white, or in this case to a dull green and white. Some of the latest research predicts the demise of corals by the end of this century, when changes in the oceans’ chemistry may make the seas inhospitable - a fragility that points up just how amazing the existence of the coral-reef ecosystem is in the first place.
Every coral reef that snorkelers and divers enjoy — including the Caribbean’s gigantic Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, which stands as a gigantic bulwark running from the top of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula south through Belize, Guatemala and Honduras — has been constructed by squishy little critters called hermatypic polyps. These transparent, pencil-eraser-size Gummi Bears are born as plankton and then sink and settle onto the sea bottom, where they build a stony skeleton and begin to clone themselves. Eventually, if conditions are favorable, a single polyp can create an entire colony. But that’s far from a sure thing. Corals are the Goldilocks of the sea, in that everything has to be just right for them to flourish: not too hot, not too cold; not too shallow, not too deep; with just the right amount of sunlight, nutrients, seaweeds and other reef inhabitants.
The Caribbean Sea is so clear because it has relatively few nutrients and little plankton. Growing a complex coral reef in this setting is akin to a rainforest sprouting from a parking lot. But that’s the magic of corals, which use alchemy and a special relationship with another tiny organism to create the world’s most biodiverse ecosystem in essentially barren waters. The alchemy is the polyp’s ability to extract calcium and carbonate from the ocean and combine them into aragonite — literally changing water into stone — and using it to make a castle. The vast reefs are built from generation after generation of corals constructing layer upon layer of these minute domiciles. Corals are given invaluable help in these ambitious building projects by photosynthetic dinoflagellates called zooxan-thellae (zoh-ZAN-thell-ee), which live inside the polyps’ tissues and act as power plant, personal chef and cleanup crew all in one. The zoox use the sun’s energy and the polyps’ own wastes (as fertilizer) to provide 80 to 90 percent of the coral’s energy needs. Thus the coral is free to concentrate on laying down more stone.
In the right conditions, corals build fantastical structures that support a dizzying array of plants and animals, literally thousands of species, many of which we know nothing about. We’ve already discovered powerful painkillers, antivirals and cancer killers in reef compounds, and it’s much more likely that the reef, not the forest, is where we’ll find the next great medicines.
Coral reefs feed and support millions of people in the Caribbean region (41 million live within 5 miles of a Caribbean coastline) and provide millions more with tourism and recreation opportunities. The World Resources Institute estimates that tourism and related businesses contribute about $105 billion per year to the Caribbean economy.
Calling Dr. Reef
“The health of the Caribbean’s reefs was gradually declining until the early ’80s,” says John McManus, professor of marine biology and fisheries at the University of Miami’s National Center for Coral Reef Research. “Then we saw the abrupt loss of elkhorn and staghorn coral, and the diadema sea urchins began to die off.” As much as 90 percent of the spectacular branching corals — recently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act — died from a plague of white band disease. And beyond losing the spectacular forest quality of the underwater world, the death of these corals reduced the intricacy of the reefs. “Elkhorn is very important,” says McManus. “It forms very steep spur-and-groove formations filled with holes, and it’s that three-dimensional space that keeps the fish population alive by giving them places to hide.”
The diademas suffered their own plague and disappeared almost overnight. “These urchins are so important,” says McManus, “because they eat the algae that can overgrow corals and can out-compete young corals for space.”
The good news: The epidemics appear to be over. “In the last five years, we’re beginning to see some recovery,” reports McManus. “Populations of diademas are coming back, and we’re seeing nice regrowth of elkhorn — which is the world’s fastest-growing coral - in Belize, northern Antigua, Buck Island [USVI], Puerto Rico and Cuba.”
“Overfishing is a major problem common to the Caribbean, threatening 60 percent of the reefs,” says Allisandra Khorai-Vanzella, marine biologist and program officer for the United Nations Environmental Program based in Kingston, Jamaica. Populations of prized food fish like grouper and snapper have been devastated in many areas, but it’s the loss of herbivores like parrotfish and surgeonfish that more directly affect the reefs. “Think of removing the [bad] algae as cutting off a beard,” says Professor McManus. “The sea urchins are like a razor, which doesn’t work on long hair — first you need scissors to crop the hair short. The herbivores are the scissors.”
The good news: Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). “It’s getting easier to work with local communities and fishermen to create MPAs,” says Khorai-Vanzella, “because they see the results — how controlling the fishing in one place quickly leads to an increase in fish populations which then spreads outside the protected area.” Good examples of MPAs can be found in St. Lucia, Belize and the Bahamas. Unfortunately, of the Caribbean’s nearly 300 MPAs (covering some 20 percent of the total reef), only 17 are being managed effectively. “It’s still very hard to get governments to pay due attention and support the enforcement of protected areas,” says Khorai-Vanzella.
“Improperly treated sewage from both local populations and tourist hotels is
one of the greatest threats to coral across the region,” says Khorai-Vanzella. “The sewage causes algae to bloom and overgrow the reef [eutrophication], where overfishing has already removed many of the herbivores that could have helped to clean away the algae. The result is that corals suffer a one-two punch.”
The good news: Although less than 20 percent of the waste created in the Caribbean is currently treated, there is some light at the end of the sewer. There’s a Caribbean-wide treaty that addresses land-based pollution, including sewage and fertilizers. It’s not yet law, but fingers are crossed that it gets signed and, more importantly, that governments live up to their obligations.
Killing the golden goose
“Tourism is developing exponentially in many Caribbean countries,” says Khorai-Vanzella, who notes that reefs and fish populations suffer when hotel, golf course and cruise-ship-pier construction destroys mangroves and beach vegetation. “It’s unfortunate,” she adds, “because the main reason tourists come to the Caribbean is to enjoy the ‘pristine’ marine environment - but we are losing it very fast due to development.”
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The good news: “All the governments in the region know how development should be done,” Khorai-Vanzella insists. “There is good information on best practices for land use, watershed protection and pollution control. The knowledge is there; it’s only lack of political will that prevents it from being used.”
Hot, hot, hot
“Coral reefs are the most temperature-sensitive ecosystems on earth,” says Dr. Thomas Goreau, president of the Global Coral Reef Alliance. “They will be the first lost to climate change.”
“Bleaching” is the term used when a coral polyp loses its zooxanthellae (which provide most of the coral’s color), leaving just the transparent jelly animal and its bone-white skeleton. In recent years, bleaching events have become more frequent and severe, and the primary culprit is a rise in sea-surface temperature. The last two decades have seen the 14 warmest years on record, and those Goldilocks corals that live within a very narrow band of conditions will bleach when the water temperature rises just 1 or 2 degrees above normal and stays that way for a month (or less time when it’s more than 2 degrees warmer). Without their zoox, coral polyps begin to starve and become much more sensitive to other stresses, such as hurricanes (which are getting more destructive because of the warmer sea-surface temperatures). In 2005’s severe bleaching event, up to 90 percent of the corals in some Caribbean countries were affected, and up to half of the colonies at study sites in the U.S. Virgin Islands died. Climate evidence suggests that this will only get worse.
The good news: Corals can recover from bleaching if they’re not further damaged by storms, overgrown by algae or hit by sediment, disease or pollution. “Some of the zooxanthellae remain in a colony, perhaps shaded or otherwise protected from warmer water,” says Professor McManus. “These can repopulate the coral, which may then tend to be more resistant to the next bleaching event.”
The acid test
“This is the one problem that has yet to hit the fan,” says McManus of ocean acidification, the lowering of the oceans’ pH. “It looks much more serious than bleaching. The oceans’ chemistry is changing because they’re absorbing so much of the fossil-fuel carbon we’ve been spewing.” The potential pH problems for the oceans, the food web and for us are immense. For corals, it comes down to their ability to build reefs. The more acidic the sea becomes, the less carbonate is available — eventually reaching a point where corals can’t construct a skeleton. “In 50 to 100 years,” estimates McManus, “very few places in the world will be able to support coral calcification rates that we have now.”
The good news: Depends on how much faith you have in the world quickly meeting goals to reduce carbon emissions.
The end game
With all the bad news, it’s hard for anyone who appreciates the beauty and value of the coral reef not to feel disheartened. But McManus has some encouraging words. “We’re not going to lose the ecosystem!” he says emphatically. “There’s an enormous difference between ‘coral reefs’ and ‘corals,’ and even if we do lose the corals in 100 years, it does not mean we lose the reefs, these enormous structures that were built 20,000 to 30,000 years ago. They will be beautiful, just not as beautiful as today, and they will still support tens of thousands of species.”
And rather than seeing a continual decline, McManus actually expects the health of Caribbean reefs to improve over the next 20 years. “We’ve got sea urchins coming back, the elkhorn and staghorn coming back,” he says. “Now if we can just do better at eliminating the damage we cause by pollution and overfishing, and if we offer the reefs better protection and make it socially unacceptable to damage a coral reef, then for the next 20 years, at least, we may see a coral reef renaissance.”
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