In the Cayman Islands the phrase “Soon come” can mean a lot of things. At its core it refers to the understanding that something will need to happen or to be done in the future, but accepts the fluid changes the world might bring. Need something fixed while you wait? Have a seat and it will be done in the order received as long as parts are available to do the fixing. Maybe tomorrow actually. Maybe. It will get done, but not always on your schedule. And that’s alright. It takes a realistic view of time management, but accepts the persons need for confirmation.
2020 turned into a dumpster fire of a year with COVID-19, community lockdowns, border closings, event cancellations and the slow, agonizing wait for life to return to “normal”. We are not there yet, but steadily seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Soon Come.
In the time isolated here, we have been busy at the Eco Divers Reef Foundation. In July of 2020 we saw community lockdowns eased and we rushed to complete our expansion goal to add additional spawning sites to cover the entire Western Coastline. In two weeks of madcap diving we completed months worth of work. A mixture of enthusiasm to do something positive amidst all the frustration and fear of the COVID lockdowns worldwide supercharged our volunteer teams and energized our actions to stay on target despite any challenges presented to us. I was shocked and thrilled to learn that many of our longtime resident volunteers had managed to remain here on Grand Cayman and were eager to lend help to complete our goals. All in time for the new sites to add to the August spawning events later that Summer.
The same enthusiasm spilled out into the community in August as we promoted the chance for divers to join us at all our partner nursery sites to observe our corals spawning. It was amazing. large groups appeared at each dive site and eagerly joined us across 4 primary nurseries. The only hangup I had was the uncooperative corals in our nurseries that refused to spawn for the crowds. Later that week, we also watched the other reef corals spawn and were vindicated with awesome photos. Nobody ever said spawning based coral reef management was going to be easy……
At this same time a new threat had begun to appear around our island. Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD). During the upcoming months we diverted our normal activities to focus on this new and deadly threat. For months, we helped survey local reefs and apply antibiotic paste as part of a coordinated plan of the Cayman Islands Department of Environment. The DOE has taken a strong approach to managing the threat of SCTLD and many of our Eco DIver volunteers are regular participants in the DOE program. I look forward to rejoining their efforts myself in the upcoming weeks as the last of the 2021 coral spawning events conclude.
And did we ever make up for lost time filming our corals spawning! Tropical Storm Grace (with 100+MPH winds) rocked the island days before the anticipated 2021 spawning event. And Tropical Storm Ida formed directly above the Cayman Islands on the second day of planned night dives during the spawning event. After missing the nursery coral spawning in 2020 we were gutted to think we might have missed another year of spawning, but that was not the case. Shortly after 9:30 at night, our corals began a mass spawning event releasing clouds of white gametes across the reef. The relief and joy we felt filming that is hard to express, but it did involve underwater dancing and plenty of joyful shouts.
We also have surveyed our target reef and added an impressive new amount of corals to the growing map that would have been from the 2020 spawning we were unable to film. Over 100 new corals and more than 20 new patches of coral coverage appeared as compared to our maps from 2020. I am eager to see what impact our newly spawned corals will add to the reef. Each newly recorded coral has survived for at least one full year to earn its place on our map. With the addition of so many new sites and structures last Summer, we are excited to see how the reefs will look in our surveys next month.
As a matter of fact, lets stop for just a moment to focus on what we have achieved over the past few years.
Our first image is a great example of what we see when we are mapping our sites focusing on Acropora Cervicornis corals (Staghorn).
This site covers 1200 meters. There is a small dense area of Staghorn coral near our transplanted corals at Smith Barcadere and that might be due to the corals there spawning or it might have to do with the adjacent location to our Southern reefs that do have stable but inconsistent Staghorn coral populations. The most striking part is the huge expanse that is nearly barren of any Staghorn corals. Three close specimens and one small patch in an area covering most of the mapped area. Our experience is that we typically find 3-7 specimens in a 500 meter survey area.
Now we look at the progression of our mapping for 3 years on the reef to the direct north of the previous map.
These maps reflect the compilation of multiple surveys done across the same region annually. Each year we survey multiple times to build the most complete image we are able to show what corals have survived the entire year since their spawning the previous Summer.
Comparing the 3-7 corals found in a mapped area like the area shown above, we are thrilled to observe the sharp increase in local populations of Staghorn corals. This result is doubly exciting as it is the result of spawning based activity. Each of the mapped corals is a genetically unique animal that will mature and add its own genetics to the local spawning events in the upcoming years. In fact, we believe that this Summer, we should expect the corals from the 2018 map to have been able to begin spawning along with our nursery corals. This additional spawnable material will expand yearly from this point forward and we are looking forward to observing how this expands the reach of our nursery spawning and the abundance locally.
At this point we are looking to employ advanced photoimaging methods to create 3-d photographs of the entire reef area so we are better able to display the recruitment and growth of our spawned corals.
I would like to present the current scope of our coral spawning program.
Every white dot represents a spawning site where coral nursery structures are employed to evenly spread coral gametes across the entire coastline. Next month we will begin mapping between the sites on Seven Mile Beach and are cautiously optimistic that our results at Sunset House and Divetech nurseries will be repeated across the entire coastline. If this holds true, then we propose that our results at these older spawning sites will provide a reliable roadmap of coral recruitment across all of our current and future spawning sites.
Speaking of our planned sites…..
This image shows the 10 new sites we plan to add in early 2022. Linking these to our existing West coast sites will begin our programs effort to encircle not only Grand Cayman, but also our sister Islands with the spawning stations we have developed.
Our goal is not simply to preserve the beauty of our amazing local reefs. Coral worldwide is horribly endangered and current news seems to indicate that the worst is yet to come. Right now 96% of stony corals in the Caribbean have already died and it is clear that many more will expire in the upcoming years.
Our goal is to prevent the utter extinction of these amazing corals. We are working feverishly to reach our project goals and establish a clear and repeatable chain of actions that can be employed to reproduce our results in other island nations. Our program intends to create areas of relative safety for our program corals that will allow them to survive the coming decades so that they might reclaim the shallow reefs once the overarching issues of climate change, pollution and carbon emissions are brought under control.
The sweeping changes required to reduce global climate change and specifically the pollution, rising water temperatures and storms that threaten our reefs is a task above my current capacity, but globally we will have to address these issues or face increasing challenges to our own lifestyles. Meanwhile, our goal is to keep the corals here and around the world from dying out entirely. If we can succeed in this single effort, and create a stable population that survives the next 50-100 years, then the same natural process we employ for our shallow reef spawning will allow those future reefs to repopulate as the waters cool and become habitable for them again.
The program we have created is elegant in its simplicity. Corals have a powerful reproductive mechanism. We simply provide them with the safest home possible and bring them close enough to allow fertilization to occur naturally. Every step of our program is tediously reviewed and critiqued, but at its core, it is just that simple. Keep the coral safe, keep it healthy and let it spawn.