I originally came to Belize to volunteer and dive, and since day one I have been seeking an opportunity to do both simultaneously! I was finally introduced to the right person about a year ago, and an opening to help Lisa with her coral reef restoration project finally arose this month. Lisa is an independent scientist working by means of international grants who is studying and devising methods to repair the extensive damage to the coral reefs of Belize.
The luminous colors and diversity of coral abound in the shallows of our seas, usually on continental shelves, islands, and atolls. Coral reefs are an impressive structure made up of living coral organisms stacked atop calcium carbonate deposits from previous coral inhabitants. I was surprised to learn this year that coral are not a type of plant, but an animal with a mouth, primitive digestive system, and sexual reproduction! And not only are the corals alive, but they provide a shelter and food for over one quarter of the ocean’s life! Corals, as most life on this planet, can only survive in a narrow window of conditions. This makes them especially vulnerable to a duress of stresses resulting from global warming
of the oceans, increased solar radiation, environmental degradation, and tourism exploitation.
The longest barrier reef in our hemisphere is the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef; it runs from Cozumel in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico to the Bay Islands of Honduras. Most of this reef is my front yard and diving playground….the Belize Barrier Reef! Lisa has been studying the increased water temperatures, coral bleaching, and degradation for several years, and has a log of scientific data that would make any science nerd proud! The night before the project, Anne, Dave, Oscar, and I, along with about 30 others, had a volunteer meeting to learn more about Fragments of Hope and the logistics for our out-planting project.
Lisa has identified which local coral species are growing better in the shallower, warmer waters found inside the reef, and has chosen these as the focus of the regeneration project . These hearty species include the elkhorn, staghorn, and brain coral, and just so happen to be some of my favorites! After a storm, the team goes out to the larger reefs and collects broken fragments of damaged coral that lay scattered along the sea floor. They are using two methods for planting
in the coral nurseries (which are found in about 3m of water on the protected leeward side of a caye): inserting fragments of staghorn coral into hanging ropes or cementing the fragments to a cement “cookie,” simulating the building blocks of a reef.
At 9am, three boats of scientists and volunteers set out for Lisa's nursery at Laughing Bird Caye. These particular fragments had been growing for about three months, and their sizes and success were impressive! We had teams doing many different projects at the nursery site: some were harvesting the large coral growths and putting them in buckets to take to the out-planting site; others were restringing new fragments acquired; and I was cleaning algae off the baby corals so they could get the sunlight and nutrients they needed to grow! The team filled numerous buckets of the new large corals that were to be replanted on the windward side …. But we left the buckets underwater during lunch so as to minimize the condition changes for our fragile animals.
Then they had a most marvelous lunch for us !!!! A massive piece of BBQ chicken, a great potato salad, beans, and bread….and after about 2
½ hours underwater, I was famished! It was great, and we needed the energy for an even more active afternoon of planting! We returned to the buckets of coral, and a few experienced free divers dove in and expertly retrieved the heavy loads. Once on board we had to make sure to keep them completely covered with water and shaded from the hot sun. It was so curious to pick up a fragment and feel it quickly turn from hard to slimy….Lisa told me the baby corals were stressed out! Aaahhh, let’s get them to their new homes, quickly!!!
I found the actual coral out-planting to be very exciting. After donning all my dive gear, I did a back roll of the side of the boat and descended to about 6 feet for the next three hours … first we would go over the dead and bleached coral patches with wire brushes and clean off the brown and green algae. Now that our shallow water was a cloud of tiny plants, we took the time to return to the boat and get the buckets of coral fragments and cement filled Ziploc bags. The corner was ripped off the Ziploc
See the small concrete cookies of baby coral in the foreground and strings of staghorn growing in the background.
bags in order to create a pastry bag injection mold type tool. Working with cement underwater is a hilarious challenge …. With a handful of coral fragments and an overstuffed bag of cement, I set off for a clean area to start planting! I would carefully eject a dog poo shaped pile of cement onto the reef base, and then cautiously push a fragment into the soft (already dispersing throughout the water) mound. If the coral couldn’t stand on its own, or a curious damselfish got too close, the coral would fall over and the entire pile of cement would dissolve! Soon I learned that the best planting spots had natural shelves for the fragments to lean upon, and you could only giggle at all the inquisitive attention from the fish!
After three hours in the 77 degree water, my fingers and toes were too frozen to continue, and I surfaced to try and catch the last rays of sun that day. Soon after, most of my teammates surfaced as well, and the empty buckets were lifted back into the boats. We took four boats out that afternoon, and each had a team of about 5 persons working…. together
we planted over 2,000 fragments of coral!! I look forward to working with Lisa and all the scientists again to help them continue this ongoing and successful project!
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