Roatan’s Beauty, Truth & Wisdom

Diver inspects the corral tree in Sandy Bay Area (Photo by Jennifer Keck).

Island Divers Plant Underwater Trees to Give Coral a Chance

Corals reefs are dying. The MesoAmerican barrier reef surrounding Roatan is experiencing unprecedented fatal stress from increasing water temperature, acidity and nutrients like sewage, pesticides, and fertilizers. The Great Barrier Reef in Australia experienced a catastrophic bleaching event in 2016 that killed entire areas of once vibrant, healthy coral, leaving behind miles of lifeless, colorless skeletons. Such an event would be a disaster for the tourism that is vital to the economy of Roatan.

Thankfully there are a group of passionate environmental scientists leading the charge to preserve, protect and defend the coral reefs of the Bay Islands. As Tripp Funderburk, who runs the coral restoration program at Subway Watersports in Turquoise Bay explains, “we had the worst bleaching event in the history of Roatan last year.” Jennifer Keck, who works as the Education and Research Coordinator for the Roatan Institute for Marine Sciences (RIMS) at Anthony’s Key Resort in Sandy Bay says, “we can’t afford to have another bleaching event.”

Coral Restoration initiatives are a planned scientific response that, as Executive Director of the Roatan Marine Park, Francis Lean says, “give hope to the reef.” Both of the restoration programs in Turquoise Bay and Sandy Bay use the same coral trees, the same record keeping and naming conventions so they can work together and collaborate in the future.

A piece of staghorn coral used in the restoration program. (Photo by Jennifer Keck).

The coral restoration programs on Roatan revolve around coral tree nurseries. The nurseries are composed of big, 30 foot tall PVC pipes. Like an underwater Christmas tree fragments of two critically endangered species coral, staghorn and elkhorn, hang from thin filaments of wire attached to the thicker PVC branches. To harvest these fragments, they take 10% of viable, healthy specimens of staghorn and elkhorn coral, cut them into little pieces and try to preserve as much of the genetic diversity of these keystone species as possible.

Funderburk, who previously worked as policy director in for the Coral Restoration Foundation setting up restoration programs across the Caribbean says “I am convinced these are important corals. We can grow them and plant them and we can get better at it. I’ve seen it work in Bonaire, Curacao, Mustique and in the Florida Keys.”

Starting in early 2016, the Bay Islands Reef Restoration program installed ten coral trees in Turquoise Bay and another ten in Mahogany Bay. Once the fragments of coral have sufficiently grown, they are planted back onto the reef, tagged, and monitored at regular intervals. Since January, the program in Turquoise Bay has out-planted more than 260 corals onto the reef with a success rate of more than 92%. Funderburk says that the program relies on volunteers, using an “ecotourism” model that doesn’t depend on “government grants or charity,” but provides their guests with “unique opportunities to learn about coral.”

Tripp Funderburk talking to a group of students at Turquoise Bay Resort. (Photo by Robert Herb).

Renee Setter, who recently completed her PADI Dive Master internship at Turquoise Bay, explains what makes working on the restoration program so special, saying, “ it’s such a unique and fulfilling experience to be able to give back to the reef. It makes divers feel satisfied and rewarded knowing that they gave back to the beautiful underwater world.”

Keck, who oversees a coral restoration program with 24 coral trees with more than 2,000 corals on them agrees that, “the whole idea of citizen science is just growing. People want to be more useful. There has been so much interest among recreational divers.”

While the programs in Sandy Bay and Turquoise Bay have been successful, the ultimate goal as Keck understands it is to “get the techniques down so we can start another nursery in the West End/West Bay area that the Marine Park will manage that would allow local dive shops to get involved and engage the community and make everyone feel like they are contributing.”

Lean agrees that cooperation is critical, saying “communication between all projects is essential to improve the effectiveness of coral restoration.”

While these coral restoration programs are not a fix for the rising temperatures and acidity in the ocean, they do help point the way forward towards a better future. Funderburk stresses that we need to “do as much smart conservation as we can on a local level” with programs that are “effective but also educational.”

Keck also ultimately sounds a positive note, saying that, “We might not have the answer today, but we might next month. We have a seed bank in Norway. We need a coral bank and that’s sort of what these nurseries are becoming.”