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  • Writer's pictureSteven Hopkinson

That bleaching feeling

We’ve been diving around the island of Roatan quite a bit more this October and November than we were this time last year. And we’ve been doing some of the sites closer to home (like the utterly gorgeous wall outside Parrot Tree) quite frequently, which means we’ve been getting to know them quite well. While the water temperature is amazing (in the low 80s) and the visibility is usually great (except when currents are shifting), and the coral is mostly in good shape, we’ve definitely been noticing a significant amount of coral bleaching in these closing months of 2019. In some places it’s so bad, it’s almost impossible to ignore.

Now, you don’t need to be a marine biologist or an art critic to see the difference between thriving, healthy coral and stressed out, bleached coral that’s preparing to die and turn into lifeless rock. It’s easy to say that one is beautiful and provides a habitat for a wide variety of marine life and the other is a post apocalyptic wasteland. It's sad to say but places with vibrant, healthy coral are few and far between these days. Seeing a diverse barrier reef full of healthy life is why people come to places like the Bay Islands of Honduras in the Western Caribbean -- because the reef here is still so incredibly alive. There are destinations throughout the tropics that are in danger of losing billions in tourism as new diseases like stony coral tissue loss disease, increasing acidity and worst of all, nutrient runoffs combine to stress reefs that are already incredibly stressed by rising ocean temperatures, invasive species and more.

Coral bleaching happens when the photosynthetic organism that lives in a symbiotic relationship with the coral, known as zooxanthellae (genus symbiodinium) get expelled from their host tissues, stripping the coral of their vibrant color and revealing the bony, white structure below. Now, there’s a lot scientists are still trying to understand about coral bleaching. The exact physiological mechanism for how the zooxanthellae is expelled from the host coral tissue is not well understood. Nor is the exact reason why coral bleaching (or zooxanthellae expulsion) occurs, but all of the signs all point to a confluence of environmental factors, primarily rising ocean temperatures, that make it impossible for the symbiotic relationship to remain viable.

The natural question that follows is, of course what can we do about it? Well, we could start by getting real about climate change, because unless you refuse to accept the peer-reviewed scientific consensus, you have to concede that temperatures are rising all over the planet, CO2 levels are rising, ocean temperatures are rising, and unless we seriously attempt to implement systemic changes to how we exist on this planet as a species, the world is 2050 is going to look radically different than the world of 1990. Now, we all know that’s not going to happen so what (if anything) can we really do to make a difference for our reefs?

Well, we could limit, halt, or even roll back development in areas that are adjacent to coral reefs, create and fund massive marine protected areas where fishing and most commercial activity is prohibited, and enact strict environmental regulations to ensure that as little nutrient runoff as possible is making it out to sea. Of course, halting development isn’t going to happen anytime soon, as the saying goes, money talks and developing land and selling real estate are big businesses. And protected areas are only effective if they have the resources to enforce their restrictions (think about making a donation to the Roatan Marine Park, which protects the entire 40 mile long island with just two boats).

Instead of thinking on a macro scale let’s drill down to a microscopic level and instead focus on what we can do as individuals to limit the stresses we might be making to the coral reef.

Use only reef-safe sunscreen. This one is really easy, but like anything with conscience, it does require some effort. If you need to use sunscreen when diving or snorkeling or going in the water at all, use only sunscreen with active ingredients ending in .ide, zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, etc.

Leave the DEET at home. I know the sand fleas (or noseeums or whatever you want to call them) can be annoying at times, but covering your skin in poison before jumping into the water to see the reef is a terrible idea and just adds more stress to our already stressed coral. There are natural remedies that work well. Use them instead while you’re going in the water.

Don’t touch anything. This should be a given for anyone going underwater. There is some speculation out there that the new stony coral tissue loss disease is either caused by or spread by divers, perhaps unwittingly carrying pathogens in or on our equipment.

Get involved with coral restoration projects. There are some amazing teams out there working on producing hardier varieties of corals to survive the rising ocean temperatures, creating huge banks of living coral to preserve for future generations, and all kinds of localized projects attempting to grow and replant living coral onto dead sections of reef. Here in the Bay Islands, we have Roatan Reef Restoration and Utila Coral Restoration, both of which are taking huge strides in creating awareness of the problem and taking proactive steps towards creating a better future by growing and outplanting staghorn and elkhorn coral fragments. There are now places in the Bay Islands staffed by dedicated, passionate people at places like Utila Dive Center, Turquoise Bay and Mayan Princess where certified divers can come for real green tourism and volunteer some of their vacation time to help maintain or expand the footprint of these coral fragment outplanting projects.

Programs like these coral restoration efforts point the way towards the future of sustainable eco tourism. Imagine patrolling a marine protected area with a dedicated park ranger and a couple of marines or spending an afternoon cleaning up an overlooked rocky beach or spending a night guarding a turtle nesting area or helping to replant mangroves torn up for development instead of sitting on a beach sipping a Mai Tai? Imagine touring an animal preserve where instead of gazing at exotic imports in cages like lions and tigers, or going to circus shows with captive dolphins, guests can interact with real rescue dogs, cats, and other native species in a big, fun, safe space?

Take the plastic back home. When you travel, especially when you’re travelling to less developed places, especially islands, make a concerted effort to not use single use plastics at all. Barring that, take your plastic home with you. Plastic compacts well and doesn’t weigh much and chances are if you’re visiting a place in the tropics, you have a better recycling system at home, so take your plastic back there with you. Doing this also makes you aware of how much plastic there is in everything we use on a daily basis.

Now, don’t get us wrong, by and large, the reef and the coral are in amazing shape in the Bay Islands of Honduras. It's the reason many people come here. Roatan, Utila, Guanaja and Cayos Cochinos have some of the most diverse marine life in the world, all in marine protected areas. Each and every dive is chock full of things to see, photograph, and experience. We just had a manta ray sighting off the end of West Bay. A couple different dive shops managed to snag some amazing photos of a rare occurrence in these waters. You literally never know what you’re going to find here. Maybe a hammerhead. Maybe a whale shark. Maybe just a pod of dolphins or a curious hawksbill turtle. Wanna come check it out? Holla at us and we’ll craft a unique package designed to fit your individualized desires.

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