Don’t forget to look on the bright side

When you work in the field of conservation even for a short amount of time your eyes are quickly opened to the perils facing the natural world. From habitat loss to global warming, humans are having a huge detrimental impact on all life on our planet. Seeing these impacts first hand and then researching and finding out more about these complicated and intricate problems can sometimes be quite depressing.


Many of the problems facing the earth right now require an immediate change on a large scale. Much to the frustration of conservationists, this change is taking a long time, with the impression from many that a ‘point of no return’ is coming in the near future. This leads to people seeing conservation as a lost cause, a point of view that can derail the entire conservation effort. If you can’t see hope then there will be no will to change.


Conservation scientists tend to promote awareness of issues by calling attention to worst case scenarios (for example, ‘if nothing is done, this species will be extinct within x number of years’). It is important for people to understand that while conservation issues are important and shouldn’t be ignored, we should not get blinded by a sense of impending doom, or a ‘what’s the point?’ attitude.


Conservation exists because a difference can be made in the world and it has. The problem is that if you focus too much on the negatives it can eclipse all the positives happening out there. This happens frequently when people forget a problem after it has been resolved to focus on the next issue. It is important to celebrate these victories in conservation and not gloss them over. There are people working very hard whose efforts are paying off.


The fact that there is hope out there should not be forgotten. Species have been brought back from extinction, massive natural protected areas have been created, and giant potentially destructive mega projects have been derailed because of their potential negative ecological impact. The power of the few cannot be underestimated, something that shouldn’t be overlooked, especially by conservationists.

Utila Time

I have now been at WSORC for ten weeks. Upon arriving in Utila, I did not quite know what to expect. But as soon as I dropped my bags, I was immediately plunged into an amazing atmosphere that has created countless and unique memories. Here is a look into my experience here at the Whale Shark and Oceanic Research Centre…


I arrived on the 6th of June, ready to learn and experience life working for an NGO. After settling into our house, it was time to begin the internship. The first week comprised of presentations given by our program coordinator and the Research Assistants (RA). This, along with a tour of the island and general introductions to the many people who I would grow to adore, was a lot of information to take in. We had activities such as visiting the freshwater caves on the island. We participated in our first of many beach clean-ups, where we experienced the devastating impact of plastic pollution. Everyone enjoys taking part in the beach clean-ups, you spend a morning on a beach, with great people, and best of all, an amazing lunch made by a resident restaurant owner.


After the introduction period at the beginning, the Marine Conservation Interns started their diving courses, while I and a Dive Master intern started to develop our fish identification skills by diving the reefs and taking along slates and pencils. This gave me the opportunity to fall in love with diving even more, as I spent all my bottom time looking for the smallest fish and naming them, like the juvenile French Angelfish, probably my favourite juvenile fish. After taking an exam, all of us became certified Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) surveyors, and contributed data to a multinational database run by the REEF foundation.


At the same time I leant to undertake diver impact surveys, which consists of following divers and taking note of the times they come into contact with the fauna underwater. This has made me pay attention to my diving, as hitting a coral with your fin can damage it, and it will take a large effort and countless years to rebuild itself. I have to admit it is fun being the “diver police,” but with power comes responsibility.


During the first month I was also introduced to Ocean Safaris, which are the trips where we go looking for whale sharks and other megafauna. As an RA, I would eventually be running these, so it was important for me to see the other RAs in charge, organising the boat, and acting as the leader with customers. Sadly in my ten weeks here, I have yet to see a whale shark, however I have had several great encounters with spinner and spotted dolphins, in particular the day we swam with roughly 80-100 dolphins, jumping out of the water and diving under us. That was an amazing experience. Speaking of notable animals, I have also had the fortune to meet the nurse sharks that live on the North side of the island, and the endemic swamper iguanas.


After my first month, the group of Marine Conservation Intern (MCI)  that arrived with me departed the program, so it was time to start being more autonomous, as I would be helping to train the next group of MCIs. In our down time, before the new arrivals, we planned out the activities of the month, and more importantly of the first week, as myself and the other two RA’s would be running the centre independently, which was very exiting because it allowed us to be part of all the behind-the-scenes operations.


The second month was a great experience, and the whole team had a lot of fun, especially during the annual Utila Carnival. During the boat parade, WSORC and Bay Islands College of Diving, our partner dive shop, paraded our boat represented with pride. For the float parade we danced the streets all dressed as marine animals, with myself as a lobster, and the girls all dressed as mermaids. I started assuming more responsibilities at the centre, such as running the welcome desk a few times a week, and leading the new interns on their fish ID dives and transect surveys. I learnt a whole lot that second month, like which are the best places to have dinner (my favourite being the asian restaurant: Foo King Wok).


If I am describing my experience here on Utila, I cannot leave out the fun times I have had. The big group of 15 that we once were had several hilarious nights out at local bars Tranquila and Coco Loco, and great times taking a boat to a tiny island with palm trees and hammocks. I also cannot leave out the fun times i had riding around the island in an ATV. As you can see, I could go on and on naming fun times, but that would take too long…


Now I only have four weeks left, which on Utila time, flies by in the blink of an eye. I am currently creating a lion fish spearing workshop, which hopefully will teach others to spear lionfish responsibly.  I am super happy to have been given the task, and to be trusted with running it in the coming weeks. When my last week comes around, however, I will be sad to be leaving this wonderful island, its amazing people and atmosphere. I will be leaving to go back to university, but coming back will not be out of the question, who knows…

Paradise Lost?

As I write this, I have three days left in my internship at the Whale Shark and Oceanic Research Center. I’ve had some wonderful times here, between fighting off an overly curious moray eel, guiding newly-hatched hawksbill turtles into the ocean, and just experiencing life on Utila. But I will leave with one regret, and it’s not that I haven’t seen a whale shark (though I still have one more chance!). My only regret is that I didn’t get a chance to visit 40 years ago when, from all accounts, the reefs were pristine, the fish were bountiful, and the impacts of human development had yet to take their toll.


Decades ago, the reefs of the Caribbean and those in Utila were among the most biodiverse in the world, covered with an abundance of corals and fish to rival anything in the Pacific. The underwater world encountered by the first scuba divers must have been truly awe-inspiring, with an innumerable variety of brilliantly colored corals, all different shapes and sizes, covering every possible surface. Enormous schools of fish, so thick you couldn’t see through them, swirling around every surface, impenetrable but for the holes that sharks bored on their way through the wary swarms. In the minds of many, the Caribbean still looks like this, a result of center spreads in travel magazines and underwater photographers visiting the best, most pristine sites. However, decades of mistreatment, overharvesting of resources, a few region-wide catastrophes, and simple negligence have taken their toll. Much of the Caribbean doesn’t look like the movies anymore, and Utila is no exception. Coral covers are down, algae obscures their brilliance, and sharks, considered an indicator species for the health of a reef, are a rare sighting here. Even groupers and large snappers can be a difficult find on the more well-travelled south side of the Island. So what happened?


Much of what ails the Caribbean can be traced first and foremost to the degradation of corals. Coral cover in large parts of the Caribbean today is as low as 15-20%, a far cry from the 90% often observed in the south Pacific. This disparity is due to a range of factors, but the first blow was dealt by the Diadema die off in the early 80’s. The long-spined sea urchin, Diadema antillarum, may to some be merely a hazard for swimmers and divers, but to the reef it is a crucial grazer, eating algae that would otherwise outcompete and smother the slower-growing corals. Unfortunately, an extremely virulent and still unknown disease swept through the Caribbean in 1983, killing up to 97% of the Diadema urchin population. Diadema densities are only now beginning to recover. The die-off led to many reefs becoming overgrown by algae, while other grazers such as parrotfish were able to pick up some of the slack, the effects of this die off can still be seen in every mottled brown piece of coral.


Another, and in my mind the most enduring, problem to face Caribbean reefs is overfishing. Utila in particular has been hit hard by having too many lines in the water. While only 7000 people call Utila home, few enough that the reef could conceivably support a sustainable local fishery, Utila exports much of the fish caught here, with most going to the US. The explosion in fishing that occurred about 20 years ago, when Utila began exporting fish year-round instead of only a few months a year, combined with a local fad for catching grouper, has demolished populations of large, sought-after predators, with large predatory fish often difficult to come by at many south-side dive sites. This has had an effect on every organism lower down the food chain that calls the reef home, an effect known as the trophic cascade. As the predators disappear, it destabilizes the populations of the fish that they eat, which in turn destabilizes the populations of whatever they eat, causing everything to eat too much or too little of each other and ultimately doing incredible damage to the reef ecosystem as a whole.


The final curse to befall the Caribbean is the invasion of Lionfish. Lionfish are a ravenous, venomous, and all around nasty predator from the Indo-Pacific that are thought to have escaped from an aquarium in Florida in the 90’s and never looked back. Small fish do not recognize the lionfish as predators, attempting to hide in the predator’s spines before being devoured, and large predators do not recognize them as prey, with scant evidence of groupers and sharks hunting them in the wild. As a result, these colorful little demons have taken over reefs from the East Coast of the US all the way down to the Northern shores of South America. The saving grace, however, is that lionfish are delicious, as we at WSORC can all attest. From the Florida Keys down to Bonaire, experienced scuba divers have been spearing them with minimal impact gear, and eating them, selling them to local restaurants, or just getting them out of the water. When done responsibly (Don’t touch the coral. Ever. With any part of your body. Just don’t), it has proven to be an effective method of control, and is practiced here at WSORC. Here on Utila, lionfish are essentially non-existent on the south side of the island. However, spearfishing cannot control lionfish at more remote sites or at depths exceeding 40 meters, the recreational dive limit. It is my hope, however, that as lionfishing grows and matures as a practice and native fish begin to learn how to deal with these foreign predators, the lionfish invasion can be controlled better in the future.


Throughout this post I’ve mentioned the south side of the island. This is the side with the town, the main road, all the dive shops, and all the development and boat traffic. The south side is therefore the most impacted by humans, and home to the least healthy corals. It is the reality, and some fear the future, for much of the Caribbean. The north side, however, is another story. Its coastline is undeveloped, its waters are protected, at least in name, by the Turtle Harbour-Rock Harbour marine sanctuary, and its corals are fed by upwelling currents. Diving the north side is like stepping back in time, as if the surface of the water were a portal taking you to another age. Snappers school, corals cover the walls of drop-offs, clinging to every imaginable surface, and reefs teem with fish, sea turtles, and even a nurse shark or two. It is a reminder of what we have lost, but also of what can be again in the future. The most astounding thing about nature, what truly takes my breath away, is that the second we stop actively making things worse, it usually starts to get better on its own. If Utila were to enforce and expand it’s marine park, reduce fishing pressure and development, and get more divers on board with conservation, the future could look more like the North side than people think.


Call me an optimist, but I think there is reason to hope. The Utilian economy has already shifting towards tourism instead of fishing, and local restaurants and dive shops are at last beginning to talk about sustainability. While the freight train of climate change is barreling towards fragile coral reefs like ours, healthier, more diverse reefs and those in cooler waters, such as the north side, will be better equipped to deal with changing ocean chemistry in the future. So, as I sit here, about to leave paradise, I take nothing with me but memories, and the hope that paradise will still be here, better than ever, when I get back.

Why the ocean matters

I have been reading a book by Alanna Mitchell entitled “Sea Sick” that discusses various ecological crises at different marine locations around the world. There was a line in the book that read:


If all life on land were to vanish tomorrow, creatures in the ocean would flourish. But if the opposite happened and the ocean’s life perished, then the creatures on land would die too”.


This made me realize that not everyone may be aware of how vitally important the oceans are for human survival. This is not just a concern that is limited to marine conservationists and environmental activists, but something that should be of concern to every single person on this planet. Many people tend to have the view that the ocean is only there to provide us with endless supplies of food or and travelling routes to new places. It’s believed that the planet’s vast resources will always be there and it will be resilient enough to compensate for whatever human’s are doing. It is important that everyone understands how the ocean is supposed to work so we can then understand how our actions are damaging it, and what the implications of an unhealthy ocean actually are.


The oceans cover 72% of the planet making it the largest ecosystem on earth and it is responsible for controlling the temperature, climate and key chemical interactions with the atmosphere. Phytoplankton (photosynthetic organisms that live in the surface waters) are responsible for producing more than half the oxygen in the atmosphere that we breathe, but get little recognition for their contribution. You probably think of trees and the rainforest as the largest oxygen producer for the planet, but you can thank the chlorophyll containing microalgae for that title. There are multiple threats to phytoplankton (ocean acidification for one), which would cause a decrease in the world’s breathable air by 50%.


Further to that effect, another important chemical process the ocean performs for us is removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which if disrupted, can lead to ocean acidification. The oceans are in constant equilibrium dissolving carbon dioxide from the air into the water, removing about one third of the carbon from the atmosphere each year. As the concentration of CO2 in the air increases, the concentration in the water increases as well. The addition of this carbon dioxide causes the water to become acidic and this devastating effect will cascade throughout all the marine ecosystems, ultimately leading to a large die-off of many creatures.


Even if you have no interest in the conservation of the ocean’s biodiversity, and don’t even like eating seafood, you should know that the ocean holds 97% of the earth’s water and provides 16% of the world’s protein. Phytoplankton are at the basis of all marine food webs, with their decline brings fish declines, coupled with overfishing pressures from humans there is a guarantee in global food shortages for millions of people. There are also many consumer products that contain materials from the ocean such such as peanut butter, ice cream, and toothpaste.


Finally, the ocean acts as a giant thermostat for the earth regulating local and global temperature and climate conditions. The global conveyor belt includes both deep and surface currents and plays a vital role in regulating weather and climate and distributing heat around the world. Winds and ocean water density drive the currents that carry heat from the equator to the poles, without it the tropics would be uninhabitable and the poles would be harsh frozen lands. With changing ocean chemical composition, these currents are subject to interruption and in turn changing the climate of the planet.


Whether you live near or far from the sea, the ocean affects everybody, it is the foundation to our lives and it is dying. The oxygen is being depleted, and acidity is rising, not to mention the added stressors that humans bring such as overfishing, and pollution. We are heading towards a mass extinction of marine organisms, global food decline and changes to our atmospheric processes. To put it simply, in order to live comfortable, healthy lives, we need healthy and happy oceans.