April 16, 2010 – At Sea, 16º 26’N, 099º 34’W
By Herb McCormick
To paraphrase Galapagos Island oceanographer and scientist Stuart Banks, perhaps one of the biggest reasons coral reefs are underappreciated by the wide masses is because relatively few people actually get to see them: Out of sight, out of mind. Unlike rainforests, strip mines or oilrigs, they aren’t readily visible to terrestrial or even boat-bound beings. You need to immerse yourself, quite literally, to understand. But once you do, you’ll be forever changed.
Nearly two decades ago, for the singular reason of wanting to see coral reefs – I was sailing amongst them all the time, and it seemed ridiculous that I’d never truly jumped in the water and experienced them – I took the course to secure my scuba-diving certificate and dive card. Despite almost drowning on a freezing New England day with zero visibility on my very first open-water dive, I’ve never regretted the decision. In the years since, I’ve dove on coral reefs in the South Pacific, Belize, the British Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, and numerous times on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. My rewards have been many. I’ve been enveloped in beauty of almost indescribable dimensions.
None of those dive trips, however, have come close to topping an adventure about ten years ago to scuba in the aptly named Coral Sea. After setting out from Queensland on the eastern Australia coast and picking our way out through the Great Barrier Reef, we spent two solid days on a wet, shaken sailboat bashing upwind into the teeth of the powerful easterly trades. I tossed my cookies every third wave; it was the most miserable sail of my life. Then, suddenly, there was breaking water, and in its lee, a rolling but relatively flat expanse of calm sea. We’d found what we were looking for – the first in a series of remote, uninhabited, pristine, rarely visited coral reefs and atolls.
An hour later, we were in the drink. Instantly, we realized the awful, bone-jarring, stomach-turning rollercoaster ride had been worth the considerable bother.
What we saw that day and for the next long week was an amazing array of coral beyond anything we could ever have dreamed of or imagined. We didn’t see just coral reefs, but coral caves and coral arches and even coral corridors that opened up into coral rooms and coral amphitheatres. It was a cornucopia of coral. The colors were as vivid and natural and pure as anything on the planet; the plentiful fish were as tame and curious as we were; the clarity of the ocean was as clear and fresh as rainwater. We returned to the boat only long enough to rest, eat, hydrate and change tanks. Our trips above sea level were an imposition; all we wanted to do was get back in the aquarium.
When you witness coral like that, you never forget it. You wish all your best mates could see it. You don’t ever want anything bad to happen to it. Then you return to shore, and just about the whole clueless, unknowing world seems to have other priorities.
On Friday afternoon, the crew of Ocean Watch was on the final stretch of their run from Costa Rica to Acapulco, Mexico, to clear Mexican customs and take on fuel. Early this afternoon, off to starboard, the profile of the coastal mountains south of Acapulco hove into view. We’ll have a further report on our arrival to the resort city later this weekend. But today, we’re concentrating on the third and final installment of our short series on coral and coral reefs.
Thus far, we’ve concentrated on the hazards and dangers to coral reefs. But there’s positive news and developments as well. Consider the efforts of the United States Coral Reef Task Force, established in 1998 by presidential order to lead U.S. efforts to preserve and protect coral-reef ecosystems. The USCRTF incorporates 12 Federal agencies as well as several U.S. states and territories, and helps build partnerships, strategies and support for on-the-ground action to conserve coral reefs. Here’s a small sampling of the interagency efforts currently underway on behalf of coral conservation:
NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program has a large grant program funding major coral reef research and management initiatives in the U.S. and abroad. NASA’s ongoing Millennium Coral Reef Mapping Project conducts cutting-edge coral monitoring and imaging research by mapping all reefs found in all tropical oceans, an invaluable service that Stuart Banks of the Charles Darwin Foundation in Galapagos cited as one of the most important inputs in his ongoing research through the archipelago.
The Fish and Wildlife Service manages 15 coral reef National Wildlife Refuges and four National Marine Monuments that represent the largest and most ecologically comprehensive series of fully protected marine areas under unified conservation management in the world. The National Park Service has ten National Parks in the Pacific, Florida and the Caribbean with coral reef ecosystems. The United States Coast Guard provides assets to assist with the removal of fishing gear and other debris affecting coral reefs, including 510 metric tons of underwater junk from Hawaii since 1996. The list goes on and on.
In Guam and the Hawaiian islands, the United States Geological Survey’s ongoing studies of coral reefs focus on mapping, monitoring, remote sensing, sediment transport studies, and collection of tide, wave and current data from remote stations. “From this work,” says their website, “we are gaining new insight into the structure of coral reefs, providing the basis for future monitoring, and understanding better both the influences of natural processes and impacts of human activities on coral reef health. These efforts will help to preserve and protect the biodiversity, health, and social and economic value of these remarkable habitats.”
Furthermore, 45% of coral reefs worldwide – a considerable percentage, though not where we need to be – are currently healthy, and as Stuart Banks noted in yesterday’s log, coral reefs have the ability to recover over time after major bleaching events. One can encourage recovery of the remaining reefs by backing agendas, politicians and corporations that help put an end to damaging fishing practices, adopt sustainable fishing practices, regulate sediment and run-off pollution and prevent further acidification in the oceans by reducing atmospheric carbon that is absorbed by the ocean.
That’s all on a global scale. There are ways individuals can “act locally,” too. Here are just a few:
- Like the crew of Ocean Watch, refrain from buying coral jewelry and souvenirs, and promote and patronize companies that do not profit from selling coral and which are committed to proactive conservation efforts. We’re extremely proud of our association with The Tiffany & Co. Foundation, one of our primary corporate sponsors and partners, who forever removed coral products from their stores and catalogs nearly ten years ago.
- When vacationing in tropical locales and snorkeling or diving on coral reefs, do not unwittingly compound the risk to coral by applying harsh, chemical-based sunscreens that can damage reefs and reef life. Instead, wear a t-shirt or “rash-guard” garment favored by surfers. Once in the water, do not step on coral, use it as a handhold or take coral souvenirs. If chartering a vessel, pick up moorings in coral-sensitive areas whenever possible, and when it isn’t, carefully choose an anchorage with a sandy bottom before dropping your anchor.
- Educate yourself about coral and coral reefs. There are numerous books and websites devoted to coral dangers and conservation efforts. You don’t need to be a scuba diver to grasp a better understanding of coral.
- Better yet, however, take the plunge and become a certified scuba diver. Local courses are available in most every coastal community, and dedicated vacations incorporating dive certification with coral-reef exploration are available the world over. Diving on coral reefs will give you an appreciation for their exquisiteness, and fragility, like no other activity.
That’s what happened to me on that dive trip to the Coral Sea. I can still remember a single moment that crystallizes the entire journey. At one point, hovering over a coral shelf about thirty feet below the shimmering surface, I rolled over on my back and drifted upside down; breathing in, breathing out; suspended weightless in the sea, going nowhere, bathed in rays of light; surrounded by reef, silence and splendor.
The world and its problems were someone else’s worry. There was nowhere else I wanted to be. Had my air supply been unlimited, I might be there still.
-Herb McCormick with photographs by David Thoreson
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