August 16, 2013

Cordelia Banks: The Search For a Treasured Reef

Having already checked off Capiro Bank from my must-see dive sites checklist, I had the Cordelia Banks' abundant coral formations next in line and straight ahead in my dive mask’s field of vision. I just needed to find the right diving operator to get me there. However, before we submerge into all the fun details of how I found myself exploring this incredible underwater seascape, let’s begin this new entry with a little background info on the biological importance of this remarkable place. 

looks like100%coral cover to me!
If you read “Tela’s Amazing Underwater Discovery”, then you should already be familiarized with this seemingly ordinary reef which goes by the name of Capiro. This coralline bank is in fact, the complete opposite of ordinary. According to the Healthy Reefs Initiative (HRI), an international, multi-institutional organization that tracks the health of the Mesoamerican Reef Ecosystem (MAR), Capiro assembles a unique collection of features, one of which recently caught the attention of the local environmental community, as it was revealed that it boasts a 69% live coral cover – an impressive characteristic when contrasted with the 18% average found in the whole MAR region. This peculiarity places Capiro as the reef with the second greatest coral cover per square meter in all of the MAR, and definitely at the pinnacle of scientific research when it comes to this field of study, but who comes in at the top spot you may ask? Of course you know by now that the answer is Cordelia Banks, a group of three coralline banks found in the south side of Roatan, located between two large urban centers (Coxen Hole and French Harbour) and in the vicinity of two busy cruise ship docks. Not the typical conditions you would usually associate with a thriving and abundant ecosystem, yet, amazing biodiversity has somehow managed to flourish in Cordelia which proudly displays a modest 70% live coral cover, more than that of Capiro and much greater than in other MAR sites found in Mexico and Belize; add crystal clear visibility and gray reef sharks and this lush coral reef not only becomes a scientific living laboratory, but also a fun site to dive in. Cordelia is better known for hosting a healthy population of coral species commonly called staghorn coral, or Acropora Cervicornis if you want to be more scientific. According to the HRI, 2012 Report Card for the Mesoamerican Reef, this once dominant coral species suffered from a high mortality rate due to disease which killed almost 98% of its population in the Caribbean Sea during the 1980s, however, it is currently thriving in Cordelia and may prove to be a source of larvae for other reefs in the MAR as the prevailing marine currents have the possibility of repopulating this type of coral in the entire region – no doubt a promising scenario for any animal member of the endangered species list. Moreover, did you know that the livelihoods of over two million people are dependent on this coastal and marine resource either for fishing or tourism (HRI, 2012). It therefore becomes highly important that this type of information is made public and channeled through different media with the aim of raising awareness in order to create efficient marine recreation plans which could secure the integrity and sustainability of these unique focal areas. Let it be known that these two latest scientific findings have been transcending international borders as significant success stories with tremendous biological importance. Refreshing news coming out of my country, instead of the more common “don’t visit Honduras travel advisories” or “Honduras wins again in football/soccer”.

Ok, enough with the scientific research and stuff, and let's go back to the original story... And there I was, knowing that one day I would eventually dive Cordelia Banks, but not really knowing when or how. It wasn’t until that day finally came in late June 2013 that the opportunity came to light as I saw on Facebook that an environmentally friendly event was taking place in Roatan, definitely not a regular occurrence on mainland Honduras but one which appears to be gaining considerable momentum over the last couple of years on the islands. If you are not familiar with it, BICCU which is short for The Bay Islands Coastal Cleanup, is a noble cause and environmental project organized by some local activists from Roatan who in an effort to live in a better environment, set up a date and organized the entire community in all of three greater Bay Islands to focus on one thing, to collect as much garbage as possible and rid their surrounding coastal areas from unwanted waste and debris. This made for a really attractive story from a writer’s point of view, and therefore the perfect incentive to get me back to the island. Truth is, the event which I explained in detail in the previous entry, was not my only objective there. I also planned to report on a select group of organizations which have also been contributing interesting and innovative ecological ideas and solutions of their own, but which were mostly out of my league in terms of finding a way to interview them. However on this occasion, I had a good excuse to finally meet them and to my surprise, they all seemed to mesh together (kinda like beans and flour tortillas, or “baleadas” for those of you who are more experienced), as every organization, business, and individual I came in contact with, was happily participating in this as well as other noble environmental causes! More importantly, I was thrilled that they were all willing to share their own stories, even opening the door to the possibility of making that long awaited visit to Cordelia – an all out success, seeing that now I had plenty of material to blog about.

purpleGORGONIASand other colorful coral also adorn Cordelia
So without losing any time, I had my bags and camera gear packed and ready to fly to Roatan. One thing was certain, this was not going to be an ordinary trip to ROA, there would be no exaggerated amount of time spent soaking up the sun in West Bay, and of course I would have to eliminate the late night bar-hopping scene and the constant buzz that usually goes with it. In addition, I would also have to refrain from wearing board shorts, tanks tops, and flip flops, the standard beach attire you would typically see me parading in, up and down groovy West End. I have to admit that staying away from all that fun and comfort was not going to be easy, but like I said, I was not visiting Roatan for leisure, I was there on assignment – a work assignment that is, so I needed to make a good impression for I was going to meet a lot of influential people on the island as part of my research. For this reason, I packed more "serious" clothing (polo shirts, socks and tennis shoes), and came up with a planned questionnaire of all the things I wanted to discuss with the BICCU organizers as well as with the other organizations I planned to include as likely blog entries. Hence, my weekend in Roatan consisted of waking up bright and early, meeting and interviewing participating individuals and organizations, and taking photographs and video in the different locations where the event was being held – an all out, full blown research project where I had to put my latest and finest investigative reporting skills to good use in order to accurately cover this and the other environmental business taking place on the island.     

agaricia tenuifolia, a.k.a.LETTUCE CORAL
Prior to my arrival I had the presence of mind to contact a few friends of mine and their associates who all live in ROA so they could lend me a helping hand in collecting all the information I needed. First and foremost, I would like to give a long-awaited public thank you, to the likes of Ian, Jenny, Elena, Alejandra, Christi, Marta, Sarah, Becky, Andres, Lee, and Doug, for their substantial assistance in the making of this project – I would never have done any of this without them! It is important to note that even though all these people hail from different corners of the world, with diverse backgrounds and educations, and who currently work for separate organizations with diverging sets of objectives, they decided one day to stop what they were doing and donate a little bit of their time and effort to support this cause. The point that I am trying to convey here is that no matter who you are, you CAN do your part and make real positive change wherever you live simply by joining forces and taking action. Proof of this was BICCU which had the islands’ prominent environmental stakeholders, community organizations, and local businesses ready to answer the call. It did not matter if you were a dive instructor from a dive shop which is inevitably linked to the environment, a CEO of an SME from a private sector which is slowly realizing that protecting the environment is good for business, or a staff-member of an environment-friendly, non-profit organization currently working on issues regarding conservation, they all volunteered and helped pick up trash, trash, and more trash.

more ofCORDELIA'Sbeautiful inhabitants
One such couple who have been staunch supporters of initiatives such as BICCU has been Ian Drysdale from Healthy Reefs Initiative (HRI) and Jenny Myton, from Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL). These self proclaimed “reef huggers” have been at the forefront of the Honduran environmental scene, in particular in the area of protection and management of our marine resources. It so happened that they were also a part of the founding BICCU organizational committee, and although they had to excuse themselves from participating in this year’s BICCU, they remained loyal to the cause and went above and beyond in helping me achieve my goal. In other words, these guys basically had all the information I needed, knew who to talk to, or where to find them – honestly, I could not have picked a better husband and wife team to be acquainted with, than these two as they knew everything I wanted to know about the Honduran reef eco-system and above all, that one site I had been dying to meet in person, the highly acclaimed Cordelia Banks. A topic of conversation they could sit down to discuss for hours on end, given how they were involved from the start in the declaration of Cordelia as a protected area, a hard fought battle they intensely pursued for over 7 years with local government – thus, the minute I told Ian I wanted to include Cordelia in my travel blog, he jumped at the opportunity to go social with their plight, and soon began the preparations for that coveted dive trip to this delicate underwater treasure – no dive operator needed!

aCORAL COLONYbrimming with life
the white patch is what you call coralBLEACHING,
a sign of stress which needs to be monitored
Before long, I was onboard a vessel from Barefoot Divers with a group of devoted environmental engineers and passionate conservationists suited up and ready to take my first glimpse at the best preserved coral reef in all of Mesoamerica. This submersion would also distinguish itself from my previous dives in that it was not going to be a typical fun dive, operated by a local dive-center. Of course, this setup could only be possible given Ian and Jenny’s frequent visits to Cordelia, which allowed them to reach an agreement with the nearby Barefoot Cay Dive Shop, where for a fraction of the real cost, they were given access to their facilities and spare diving equipment, not to mention a medium sized dive boat (boat captain included) so that they could conduct their scientific studies on site. As a result there would be no dive instructors or divemasters strictly supervising the operation, instead it was only Ian and Jenny leading the way, followed by a bunch of responsible guys and girls who knew a thing or two about diving, and who wanted to stay underwater as long as possible, barely checking for air and ascending only when needed. I still cannot get over the great feeling of freedom I felt just from the fact that there was no one pointing and signaling at me telling me what to do – another proud accomplishment to be added to my list of diving-firsts, which just keeps expanding as I log more and more bottom time. It must be noted that even though Ian and Jenny do not work as dive instructors per se, they are certified as such and have plenty of diving experience considering that part of their work consists on monitoring reef health. In fact, to date they have trained close to 50 certified divers in all of Honduras in the proper reef monitoring techniques, which one day I hope to learn as well so I can also contribute in the protection of these marine ecosystems I so immensely enjoy exploring. Reef Monitoring, for those not acquainted with the term, is an activity which tracks reef health and consists of recording changes in coral cover, fish populations, species diversity, coral bleaching events, and disease events among other measurable key elements, an integral part of both Ian and Jenny’s line of work. Ultimately, there would be no reef monitoring on this dive, however there was a crack at some lionfish spear hunting (more on the Roatan Marine Park’s Invasive Lionfish Control Program in the next entry). But like I said, this was more of an attempt than anything else, as no one rounded up any of these inhospitable visitors; there just weren’t any lionfish in sight – a good sign for Cordelia, but a tough break for me, since I was really looking forward to finally taste them lionfish tacos I had been hearing so much about! I for one was hard at work fiddling with my camera’s knobs and gears while seriously concentrating on improving my underwater buoyancy skills – not an easy combination to master and one which will require additional practice.

And so the dive unraveled for about 50 minutes along Cordelia’s 17 Km² long reef, at about (30ft/9m), in very worthwhile diving conditions (just a slight current and great vis). Let it be clear, that Roatan is well known for having truly desirable visibility year round, an added bonus which allows for the beauty of this place to be better appreciated. In general, I must say that I really liked what I saw in Cordelia, it is indeed a special habitat brimming with life with some areas even possessing a 100% live coral cover, an impressive feature to say the least! A strong presence of stony corals such as brain and elkhorn coral merge together with dense lettuce coral creating large rock-like formations which are evenly distributed into parallel ridges all across this shallow reef. Of course, Cordelia’s main attraction is the large communities of healthy staghorn coral which stand almost symmetrical on the shallower crests of these coral formations. Their intricate web of branches grow at a fast pace, providing ample refuge within its crevices to a plethora of microorganisms and to a rejuvenating reef-fish population – another unique quality further highlighting Cordelia’s biological importance, as these coral species may hold the key to the replenishment of critically depleted fisheries the local artisanal fishermen so highly depend on. In addition, being among the fastest growing “reef building” coral species in our oceans, they have been playing a significant role in reef restoration projects all over the MAR region. There are also other strikingly colorful species of coral I will not describe for fears of sounding too much like a biologist, but which contrasted perfectly with the yellow and brownish tones dominating most of the landscape. If there was a negative aspect I had to single out about Cordelia, it would have to be that there were not many pelagic fish in the area, an additional feature which could have further spiced up this wonderful dive. Can you imagine how insane it would have been to have spotted the gray reef sharks which are supposedly readily seen in Cordelia? That would have been the icing on the cake that would have made this dive all the more memorable.

 a treasure to be protected 
However, I definitely cannot be that greedy and ask for a shark encounter as well! Remember that the main reason why I was visiting Roatan was merely to cover BICCU which consequently opened the door to other writing opportunities, including the unexpected trip to this world famous dive site. Most importantly, this visit was an eye opener on a personal level. As I began to dig deep into the “who is who” in the environmental community, I soon realized how much of a close knit group this is and how much of their actions and decision-making are interconnected. In addition, the passion and devotion these people transmitted when they immersed themselves in green topics of discussion and about the diligent work they do, really got to me; but it wasn't until I saw with my own eyes what they are working so hard to protect (i.e. Cordelia Banks), that I finally began to understand why so many people got involved with this and so many other environmental causes. It even awakened in me that ecological responsibility to join the movement and be a part of the solution.