Orca’s in the Caribbean

April 21st 2019:

“There is no way this is actually happening,” I told myself as I kept trying to focus on the large dorsal fins that emerged ever so often only a few meters away from us. My logic was telling me it just wasn’t possible but the size and shape of those fins were very particular. I couldn’t fully wrap my head around what was going on, much less prepare myself emotionally for what we were about to see.

It was a gray Sunday morning, a rare one for our little Caribbean island, and all of this
month’s WSORC interns were set to go out on an Ocean Safari with 5 customers on board.
I’d woken up that morning feeling a little hesitant about the weather. Nearly perfect
conditions are necessary to spot the boils, the usual telltale sign that a whale shark is
feeding close to the surface, but the previous day it had drizzled non-stop and that
morning promised to be no different. The wind forecast was reassuring so at least it
wasn’t going to be a choppy ride. Despite the less than ideal weather conditions we had
before us that morning, our hopes to find the elusive and almost mythical creatures were
still very high. I guess a little rain wasn’t going to stop us from seeing them if they were
actually out there.

The Neptune, our charming and reliable boat that had been on many Ocean Safaris with
us, was loaded. Drinking water, fresh fruit and snacks were on board. Snorkeling gear,
binoculars and other necessary items were stored under the seats, waiting to be used.
Customers were hopping on, sunscreen was being methodically applied and interns were
as charming as ever, welcoming everyone aboard and making sure everything was ready.
Final details, roll call, boat briefing, we were good to go. My watch hit 8:10 am. Captain
Austin gave interns the okay to untie the ropes, they pushed the boat off the dock and off
we were. The energy was electric and we sailed out not really knowing what to expect.

We started the trip by heading east and sailing towards Pumpkin Hill and Turtle Harbour.
Going to the north side of the island is always a treat. It’s a scenic ride and it is quite nice
to take in the view under such different weather conditions than what we are used to.
Gray skies contrasted magically with the green of the highest point of the island. It sure
was a great view but to actually be able to see some whale sharks, we were going to have
to venture out farther from the shore. After communicating with the Captain, direction
was changed and we ventured out towards deeper water and into the open ocean.

Not 10 minutes after we’d decided to move farther from the shore, we saw something.

Someone pointed towards the front of the boat and got everyone’s attention. Captain
slowed down and we all looked intently to where he was pointing out. I couldn’t see any
boils on the surface or birds flying around. What were they pointing at? Soon it became
clear. What appeared to be a large, black dorsal fin materialized shortly before
disappearing back into the sea. The size, shape and color of that fin was definitely not that
of a whale shark. Also, whale sharks don’t go out of the water like that. What is it? No!
There was no way. A black and very large dorsal fin surfaced again. I couldn’t even fathom
the possibility of what was going on in my head. It couldn’t be.

“Pilot whales,” is what I told myself and everyone else on the boat. We’d seen them out
on Ocean Safaris before and we’d even gotten in the water with them. Surely their
presence in our ocean made far more sense than whatever else I was thinking those fins
were. It just wouldn’t make any sense because we were in the middle of the Caribbean,
after all. Dorsal fin surfaced again. Someone else said it, “THEY’RE ORCAS!” No, there’s no
way. I laughed at the thought. “We’re in the middle of the Caribbean. Those are pilot
whales,” is what I responded, still incredulous. Everyone seemed to think I was right for a
second there… until I wasn’t.

We saw the large black fin surface a few more times as we got closer. Nicks and
indentations on the fin were easily identifiable now and size from up close was
overwhelmingly huge. There was no way this was a pilot whale. What else could it be? I
was still scratching my head, figuratively speaking, when we saw it. Large, black dorsal fin
popped up on the surface again. Large, black dorsal fin came with white patches behind
the eyes and under the rostrum. Large, black dorsal fin broke the surface of the water
frequently and gracefully. Large, black dorsal fin was an orca!!! It was undeniable now.

Orcas in the Caribbean. I muttered those words under my breath a few times before
repeating them out loud over and over. It was kind of like a mantra at the time, kept me
from losing my cool. I couldn’t fully believe it but it was a reality now, a rare and
wonderful one. Once we came to the realization of what our eyes had just seen, we saw
more and more fins pop up all over the place. It wasn’t just one orca, it was a pod of
orcas!!! Cool wasn’t going to be kept much longer. The dorsal fins were all different
shapes and sizes and now we could hear their blows. Someone on the boat compared the
sound of their blows to the sound horses make sometimes, like a little snort. I wouldn’t be
able to describe it to you if I tried but hearing that sound meant we were close, close to
the wonderful creatures that I had only been mesmerized by through documentaries
before, and that brought a sense of connection and belonging that I had never
experienced.

The energy on the boat was amplified by 1000%. Some people grabbed their phones and
cameras and recorded away. Some people wanted to get in the water with them, others
wanted to follow them around on the boat. No one really knew what to do but I think all
of us were basking in the greatness of the moment in our own way. The emotions ran
wild. There was joy, there was confusion, there was excitement. There was laughter,
there were tears, there was a lot of screaming and head clutching and hugging and
jumping up and down. Adrenaline was running through everyone´s bloodstream. No one
was cold anymore and there was an overwhelming sensation in all of us that can only
come from having been truly blessed by nature.

I couldn’t think clearly at first. I saw them surfacing over and over again and I just couldn’t
help but be completely hypnotized by their motions and their blows. I caught myself
holding back tears. I couldn’t be bothered to grab my phone, initially. It was tucked away
in my bag under the bow of the boat and I didn’t want to miss a second of the marvelous
interaction trying to get it. Everyone was taking pictures and videos and I thought, “okay,
we have the proof, just enjoy this moment.” And I did. I kept looking around at everyone’s
faces, I wanted to see if everyone was feeling the same way I was feeling. Confusion
slowly started to fade away and joy was setting in. At one point I could hear Captain
Austin’s voice screaming to someone on the phone. He kept repeating the words “Orcas
on the North Side, Orcas on the North Side” to whoever was on the other side of the line
but I don’t think they believed him straight away. I wouldn’t have either.

The orcas got super close to our boat on several occasions. We’d see them coming up
from the back of the boat, then swim under and then pop up unexpectedly on either side
of the boat. They would often wave-ride or bow-ride alongside The Neptune to our utter
delight. Different behaviors and movements were frequently displayed and we couldn’t
help but be mesmerized by everything they did. I think they were as curious about us as
we were about them. They would swim upside down or on their sides and follow us
around, either by the front or the back of the boat. We continuously had to switch from
port to starboard in an attempt to not miss out on anything they did. This magical
madness lasted over an hour.

My heart couldn’t take it anymore and I finally managed to grab my phone. It seemed like
they were putting on a show for us and I wanted to record at least a small bit for myself.
They ended up being so generous with us that I managed to record over 10 minutes total
of footage of them being absolutely stunning and perfect. I was happy, the happiest I’d
been in a long time. A sense of completion washed over me. I was so grateful.

Sadly, after spending almost an hour and a half watching these unique creatures, we lost
track of them. We hadn’t had enough of them but they’d probably had enough of us. We
could no longer see their fins popping up all around and they were no longer chasing the
boat or swimming under it. It was a little heartbreaking but, in the end, they are the ones
that controlled the encounter. It was time to move on.

But how could we? We’d just experienced one of the most magical gifts from Mother
Nature and on Easter Sunday, no less! How can one simply go on with their lives after such
a remarkable interaction? Our hearts were left full from the encounter and I think it’s safe
to say that we all were feeling at least a little bit more connected to the Ocean and the
little Caribbean island that offered miracles of this kind.

Emotions aside, this brush with the “wolves of the ocean” has quite possibly been the
most important wildlife interaction I’ve had in my life. It was not planned and completely
spontaneous, yet so adequate. These creatures, although not necessarily unheard of, are
not common in the Caribbean, much less in Utila. Spotting them on that gray Sunday
morning was a lucky strike like no other. The sighting has sparked interest not just from
the national public but also from international organizations, scientists and researchers,
news outlets and reporters, film crews, cetacean specialists and many other entities.
There are still many questions floating around: Why where they here? How long have they
been here for and how much longer did they stay? Who are they? Are they a tagged pod?
Should we be worried or excited? Is this a testament to climate change?

As we keep trying to find an answer to these questions, I can only hope that this is an
experience I never forget. I hope I never forget how lucky and blessed I feel and how much
still needs to be done to protect our oceans and all marine life. My mind, as well as those
who were with me on the boat that day, will forever be flooded with the wonderful
memory of being followed around the Caribbean by a pod of orcas on a gray Sunday
morning and as I write this in the comfort of my bed, I can assure you that I will never get
enough of all the magical wonders this place has to offer. I can’t wait to be out on a boat
again.

 

  • Andrea Godoy, Research Assistant (at the time)

To Kill or Not to Kill

I have been in Utila for three weeks now and there has been a steep increase of the amount of mosquitos in the last week and a half. Unfortunately this has led us to being attacked by swarms of mosquitos when we have been outside. I have started wearing bug spray all day and night and I am still am covered in hundreds of little (sometimes not so little) itchy red bumps. The worst part is this is just the beginning, as we move into the rainy season it is clear that the mosquitos will be going nowhere any time soon. Many wishes for all the mosquitos to die have been expressed by all so I decided to do a little research into what is being done to control or eradicate mosquitoes and people’s views about the impact it will have.

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There are 3,500 named species of mosquitos but only a couple hundred or so bite or bother humans and of those couple hundred only 30 or so species are the real problem. These mosquitos can carry many viruses and diseases that have a heavy impact on humans including malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever, West Nile virus, and chikunguya. The ease and the rate at which the mosquitos can transmit these diseases among people causes millions of deaths a year and heavy medical and financial strain on countries. Causing a species wide extinction, specicide, is being researched and would save many lives and allow developing countries to use their money on getting food and clean water to more people. The many benefits to having mosquitos eradicated are easy to see and when you are fighting a swarm of mosquitos, specicide of them seems like it would be the best thing to ever happen on the planet. However, some scientists are not for the total eradication of mosquitos.

Life in the Artic could be heavily impacted by specicide of mosquitos, some scientists estimate that up to 50% of migratory birds in the tundra would die out without mosquitos. Also caribou herd paths are influenced by swarms of mosquitos and without them the paths and behavior of the caribou could change and cause severe impacts on life in the tundra. There are also animals that specialize in mosquitoes such as the mosquitofish and in the absence of their food source, will also go extinct which could impact the food chain. Opposing these scientist are ones arguing that mosquitos specicide will have no impact on the food chain. It is argued that we have overestimated the amount of mosquitos that animals eat and an examination of their stomach contents has proved this point. They also believe that animals that do target mosquitos as prey will switch to other insects. Aside from animals, plants would be impacted for many of them would loose their pollinators but none of those plants are ones that humans depend on so these losses are mainly being overlooked. One scientist is fighting for not the total extinction of mosquitos but a temporary disappearance of them in order for diseases such as malaria to disappear and then to reintroduce mosquitos. What the impact will be is unknown but some scientists fear a major disruption of the food chain and some think that there will be just a small hiccup and then either some other species will fill the niche or nature will figure it out.

Even with all the possible negative impacts of the specicide of mosquitos, the majority of people are in favor for it because the benefits from it are so great for the human population. There are many scientist that are working on how to cause such an extinction, while some are focusing on all mosquitos there are many that are focused on just getting rid of the 30 or so mosquitos that cause so many problems for the human population. Currently there are some pesticides that are being used to control mosquitos and they are specific to different life stages of the mosquito. Larvicides target the larvae and kill the mosquito before it matures into an adult. These larvicides are mainly an oily substance that is applied directly to the water and disperses forming a thin layer of oil on the surface of the water. This causes the larvae and pupae to drown because they cannot penetrate the oily layer. It also deters adults from laying eggs in that body of water. Adulticides target the adults and are sprayed from planes and trucks causing the fine aerosol droplets to cover a large area and kill the mosquitos on contact. Personal mosquito control includes the use of bug spray and it is also recommended that you get rid of any standing water around, to change the water in birdbaths regularly, and to properly maintain pools. No matter what your view is on this issue it seems inevitable that sometime in the future mosquitos will no longer be a bother and so while we wait for them to figure out a method to cause the specicide, bring on the bug spray and the anti-itch cooling gel.

 

Author: Kristina Tietjen, October 2015

How has tourism changed local perceptions of the ocean?

Utila’s first dive shop opened in 1991 and twenty years later there are over 10 dive shops and resorts. The growth of this dive industry and the low price of an open water course has lured in many budget travelers to the Caribbean island. As tourism increases on the 11km long island it leads to an influx of mainland Hondurans coming to Utila along with dive professionals from around the globe for work, which has led to the population increasing exponentially.

 

Tourism has its positives and negatives for the island but I wanted to look into how it has changed the opinions of Utilians as they witnessed this change firsthand. I spoke to a few locals who work at the Bay Island College of Diving (BICD) and the Utila Lodge ranging in age from 20 to 50 and their answers were as follows:

 

Albert is a captain at BICD and the increase in tourism has changed his opinion of the ocean. He now realises the importance of keeping marine animals alive rather than fishing them for food. He used to catch and eat turtles every other month with the meat lasting a couple of weeks for his family. He hasn’t eaten turtle for fifteen years. Albert also used to fish regularly for lobster, conch, crab and other fish. He now cannot remember the last time he ate lobster. This benefits the reef and the tourists who are more satisfied after seeing an abundance of marine life. Having a job in tourism also makes Albert more money and is more rewarding than the jobs he used to have, for example working on freight ships. If he got offered another job today he wouldn’t take it.

 

Another boat captain, Foster, has realised since tourism has become a big part of Utila the amount of garbage in the ocean has reduced. If the aesthetics of the ocean were gone then so would the tourists.

 

John, a dive instructor at BICD is only 20 and is already doing his PADI Staff Instructor qualification. He became a diver as the income it brings him is a lot better than a job he would have on the island if tourism wasn’t so big. Tourism has changed his life and career.

 

Queen Anne (or Queenie as everyone calls her) has been working at the lodge for over ten years. She has noticed that as more people have come to the island everything is being destroyed. She mentioned that when she was growing up here they used to have everything in abundance because they took care of things in the ocean. For example, when they caught a female lobster and saw she had eggs, they would put her back. Now this isn’t the case as fishermen are taking anything they catch regardless of size or reproductive stage and people do not care anymore. This is an indirect consequence of tourism as it isn’t the tourists but some of the community from the mainland who have different beliefs and cultures than those from the Bay Islands.

 

Another dive instructor at BICD, Donna, says that she has become more aware of ocean topics since becoming a diver. For instance she had no idea about overfishing and has now noticed the decreased amount of reef fish on dive sites. Donna also said that the tourism has changed Utila’s culture and people, especially her, as she is more open minded to what is going on in Utila. She has noticed that tourism is just a money making business and people aren’t taking care of the reef.

 

These are just five peoples’ accounts of tourism on Utila and their stories all differ. Although most are more conscientious about the ocean there are still those who continue to fish as they did decades ago, catching turtles, which are endangered, and other species which have a minimum take size. Some continue to take what they want without realising that the species are what bring tourists to Utila. This is just an example of one island in the Caribbean, but this is happening worldwide, and hopefully one day we will all realise the importance of the ocean. If we nurture the environment it will nurture us.

 

Author Lisa D’Silva 2015, photocredit Justin Enns.

Ocean Motion

The polar regions are important drivers of the world’s climate. Ocean currents redistribute heat around the world via thermohaline circulation (also called the Global Ocean Conveyor). One reason water in the Global Ocean Conveyor circulates is because of differences in water density. Differences in temperature and salinity are the cause of changes to water density. The colder the water the denser it becomes. Same with salt, the saltier the water the denser it becomes.

The greater the density difference between separate layers in the water column, the greater the mixing and circulation. Water heated near the equator travels at the surface towards the poles where it becomes cooler. As the water cools, it becomes denser and sinks into the deep ocean, driving the deep ocean currents. When salt water freezes the salt is excluded. When water freezes at the poles the surrounding water becomes saltier and sinks, this also contributes to ocean circulation.

Melting of polar ice could cause dramatic changes to the Global Ocean Conveyor. As the earth continues to warm and arctic ice melts, freshwater is released from melting ice, making seawater at high latitudes less salty, therefore less dense. The less dense water will not be able to sink and circulate through the deep ocean as it currently does. Therefore this melting of arctic ice has the potential to disrupt and slow the Global Ocean Conveyor. The warmth from the warm surface currents carried away from the tropics is lost to the atmosphere.  The slowing of this ocean circulation could lead to a cooling in places where this warmth is currently lost into the atmosphere.

So why does this matter for the small island of Utila? When fresh water flows into the sea it changes ocean currents, which changes living conditions for marine organisms. These changes will be noticed everywhere around the world. Many marine animals depend on these currents for migration. They depend on these currents to find food and for breeding purposes. A change in ocean currents could change the distribution of phytoplankton, which would change migration patterns of larger organisms that depend on such distributions. A change in heat distribution could cause problems as well. The warmer less nutrient dense water will stay concentrated in the tropics, which will cause further changes to the marine organisms found here.

The Importance of Biodiversity

Late last year the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released a report via its biennial Living Planet Report for the year 2014. The results of the science based study were quite sobering. The Living Planet Index (LPI), which measures trends for more than 10,000 representative populations of fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, declined by 52% between the years of 1970 and 2010. More than half of Earth’s biodiversity lost within the relatively minuscule time frame of 40 years. How did this happen? What are some of the contributing factors responsible for this staggering decline in biodiversity? Furthermore, why is it so crucial that we put forth our best efforts to conserve as much of it as we possibly can?

 

So, just what exactly is meant by the term biodiversity? The term biodiversity is relatively new and is thought to have first been coined by W.G. Rosen as a contraction for “biological diversity” back in 1985 and it first appeared in a 1988 publication by sociobiologist E.O. Wilson. Simply stated, biodiversity is the variety of all the different forms of life found on Earth.

 

There are many factors that influence changes in biodiversity. These factors, which can be either direct or indirect, are referred to as drivers. Some of the main drivers responsible for this loss of biodiversity are climate change, overexploitation of species, introduction of invasive species, habitat destruction as a result of urban sprawl as well as for the purposes of agriculture in order to meet the demands of an ever increasing human population, and pollution just to name a few.

 

So why is maintaining biodiversity through the conservation of species so important?

 

Well, for starters, ecosystem productivity is higher when more biologically diverse. More biologically diverse ecosystems can also prevent and rebound from natural or man made disasters more readily than those systems that are less diverse. The human population depends on them for resources such as food, shelter and medicine. In some areas of the world the economy is based largely upon ecotourism and if those avenues of income were to suddenly evaporate due to losses of biological diversity those economies in all likelihood would go belly up. History is also replete with examples of how the discovery and subsequent study of organisms have helped advance the fields of science, engineering, and medicine.

 

Whether you view a species as having an “Intrinsic or inherent value” (something having value in and of itself) or you view it as having an “instrumental or utilitarian value” (the value something has as a means to another’s end), one thing is for certain and that is that the value in having rich biological diversity is immeasurable. After all, who wants to live in a biologically depauperate world anyway? I know I most certainly do not.

 

Author: Phillip Rose 2015. Photocredit: masonresearch.gmu.edu.

Conservation and Aesthetics

Which species deserves to be conserved? One could argue that all animals facing extinction should be saved, as each play an important role in the entirety of the ecosystem. However, as the scientist David Stokes recently wrote in the Journal of Human Ecology, ‘human preferences will increasingly determine many species’ prospects for survival‘.

 

Humans are not always able to make an emotional connection with a species, increasing the possibility of that particular species being neglected. An animal’s aesthetic appeal is what generates greater interest to make it desirable to be saved. The public is able to connect with some iconic animals by finding them majestic and powerful like the polar bear, cute and fluffy like the panda bear, or cool and chill like the sea turtle. Some species have an influential visual or symbolic charisma, garnering more support from the public to further conserve them.

 

There have been studies exploring which visual characteristics of certain species humans prefer, and how this affects the attitudes towards its conservation. One particular study focused on evaluating which parrot species were found in captivity. The study found that there was a ‘positive association between perceived beauty and the size of the worldwide zoo population‘. Other variables analysed included the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listing, which was shown to be an insignificant variable. The study concluded that the conservation status of the particular parrot species was not the determining factor; instead it was the parrot’s aesthetic appeal.

 

So if a species is less desirable in the eye of the general public, how do we change the species’ future outlook? There have been recent outreach initiatives bringing awareness to the neglect of less appealing animals by conservation efforts. Will educating the public on the importance of conserving keystone species, generate a greater interest in those species previously deemed ‘unappealing’?

 

Author: Leah Schwartzentruber 2015.

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.