Teaming with and fighting for life

Soft coral at Dixon's Pinnacle

Soft coral at Dixon’s Pinnacle, though protected by its depth and temperature, remains under serious threat like much of the world’s coral as seas warm and acidify. This is a picture of what mankind may very well be pushing out of existence.

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Healthy coral in the deep blue

Undisturbed...

I spent several days diving recently off Panama’s Isla Colon, where the water is cloudy with sediment, corals are sometimes covered in sand, mud and dirt and large schools of fish are hard to come by. This is likely due, at least in part, to the runoff from all the plantation activity in the surrounding country.

I can’t help but contrast that with photo, from Dixon’s Pinnacle in the Andamans, of remote, relatively untouched coral that is clean, free of disease, blue shifting from the depth and unbleached.

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Coral macro

Blue phase

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What’s down there…

Rainforest

Why I’m in grad school: conserving the above to protect the people who rely on it. From the unfortunately bleached and algae covered coral beds at South Button.

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I just like to stare at it…

Undersea oddities

A feather star hangs off a coral block. Tiny reef fish and damsel fish flit about. A cleaner wrasse streaks across your view. And all if it stands in semi-silohuette of the blue underwater sky.

I love it so.

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Scared lionfish

I'm afraid of him, yet he runs away

A lionfish caught in the open makes for more protective coral at Lighthouse Reef.

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Coral reef under threat

Sad reef

The dying Lighthouse reef of Havelock Island typifies shallow water reefs the world over. The ecosystem is collapsing.

So-called bleached coral looses its color as the symbiotic relationship with a protozoa fails. As the coral stop growing and eventually die, the myriad species that survive around them move or diminish. Frequently, it seems the corals are left to the whims of algae.

Scientists say coral bleaching is caused by a variety of factors stressing the coral (which are actually tiny creatures that build magnificent skeletons) and disrupting the symbiosis. Global warming, acidification, human waste, harmful fishing habits and more are all very real human impacts on these rain forests of the sea.

This underwater rainforest is all but gone

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Goodbye healthy reef

Deep blue Dixon's Pinnacle

About 100 feet beneath the ocean several miles off Havelock Island is a picture of what is fast disappearing: healthy reef.

Coral ecosystems — the rain forests of the ocean, as it were — are fading and collapsing in the face of global warming, coral bleaching, overfishing, agricultural runoff, human waste pollution, the list goes on.

We can congratulate ourselves for mucking about too much.

If you’re interested in knowing more, I encourage you to check out the research and conclusions from International Programme on the State of the Ocean.

I don’t mean to be preachy, but this particular slice of the environment is something I’m dedicating my life to. So, in my world view, it’s too damn important to not talk about.

More life than you can shake a stick at

Fish and more be everywhere

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Table coral nursery school

Kindergarten

I love staring at the reef. Every few seconds, it becomes more and more alive as your eyes adjust and pick up the details.

Here, some young butterfly fish or damselfish hide in a patch of table coral at Dixon’s Pinnacle. I could have easily swam right past them.

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For the record, shrimp fishing is hyper-destructive

Hauling it in

Puerto Lopez, that wonderfully sleepy fishing town, unfortunately sees its fair share of shrimp trawlers taking advantage of its rich, cold waters. Sadly, shrimp fishing is routinely harmful to the environment — ripping up vast amounts of reef-supporting life along the bottom of the ocean and catching (and mostly killing) up to 20 kilograms of “bycatch” for one kilo of shrimp.

As tasty as the shrimp are — Lord knows I’ve been a giant fan over the years — they are not fished sustainably. Please, please do not eat shrimp.

Equally unfortunate: the mass destruction of coastal mangroves and estuaries for shrimp farms. There are some alternative versions of shrimp farms that are considered sustainable — multi-species growth ponds like those used for centuries in Asia or modern, high-tech closed-loop systems — but the practice of grinding up other fish to eat shrimp is still a questionable practice at best.

Of course, shrimp fishermen (and dependent people and businesses) are a large block of the poor coastal economies worldwide. This is a huge challenge for the development and conservation sectors to answer: how can we keep these people sustained while also sustaining the environments they’re destroying?

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