Published in UK Diver Magazine July 2015
A few minutes was all it took for a cruise ship anchor to destroy thousands of meters of protected coral reef in Grand Cayman last August. In response to this ecological disaster, a team of volunteer divers formed, intent on saving as much of the damaged habitat as possible. In just under a year, the recovery operation has become so successful that it now owns its own boat which is used to send out teams of volunteer divers to work on the reef on an almost daily basis. When all this began, it was almost impossible to imagine how this piece of world famous reef could ever recover. Following a years’ worth of sheer determination, hard work and the generosity of concerned businesses and community members, the reef recovery team has managed to create hope for this tragic situation.
The disaster happened at the end of August last year when the 300M Carnival Magic dropped anchor in the protected Marine Park on a sizeable patch of healthy coral reef. While the anchor lay in a bed of shattered marine life, the immense chain was pulled through the reef damaging an estimated 4,000 square meters Coral. The chain made its mark on top of the wall which starts at a depth of approximately 16 meters and drops down a mile to the ocean floor.
Following the incident, Grand Cayman’s Department of Environment (DOE) launched an investigation. It was understood that when cruise ships arrive at the island, the Port Authority assigns them a location where they are allowed to drop anchor. Local company Bodden Shipping then direct the ship to the correct spot and signals when to drop the anchor. Establishing whether Carnival, Bodden or the Port Authority were ultimately responsible would involve a lengthy and costly court case, and as such the DOE advised against legal action being taken.
In the wake of this ecological tragedy, a desperate attempt to reduce the destruction is underway. Working under the DOE is a team of dedicated volunteers, mostly from the local dive community, headed by Lois Hatcher from Ocean Frontiers and Keith Sahm from Sunset House. Hatcher describes the damage as catastrophic. “With the condition of worldwide coral reefs in steady decline, even up to 80% in some areas, every little piece of coral is important. Not only for habitat but for what is left of the fish and marine life”
Efforts are being assisted by the Central Caribbean Marine Institute (CCMI), a group of scientists who focus on reef recovery. CCMI Conservation Scientist Katie Lohr talks of her organisations involvement: “Conserving coral reefs is at the core of CCMI’s mission, and we are thus committed to helping to restore the site as much as possible. We are helping in whatever way we can, especially by providing supplies, use of our boat, and our scientific expertise in the field of coral reef ecology and restoration.” Lohr explains what is currently being done in the project: “Volunteers have been working since the incident occurred to remove rubble and secure dislodged pieces of live coral. They have helped to mitigate coral mortality by securing dislodged corals in milk crates on the seafloor, improving their chance of survival. However, it is imperative that corals are reattached to the reef as soon as possible to encourage long-term survival.”
It’s not only divers donating their time, several local businesses are also contributing towards the effort. Water sports operator Red Sail have been providing boats for the volunteers to dive from almost every week since the recovery attempts began. In addition, Divetech, Don Fosters and Off the Wall are amongst other Cayman firms who have stepped up and donated resources. Businesses outside of the dive industry have also generously offered what they can with places like Subway and Breezes By The Sea providing meals for the volunteer divers, Flowers Water providing bags for lifting work and Fosters Food Fair who provided the milk crates that the surviving corals now temporarily live in.
As the reef restoration project started to take shape, it became apparent that funds would be needed. Requirements like lift bags, epoxy, tools and cement all have costs attached to them. Group leaders also agreed that purchasing a boat would greatly assist logistics, enabling the volunteers much more opportunity and flexibility to work on the site.
A fundraising event was arranged in February and proved to be a huge success. Money was raised through auctions, raffles and donations from people at the event as well as people keen to offer their support through the internet. Awareness of the incident had managed to spread through social media to the point where people were actually travelling to Grand Cayman in order to offer their vacation time as restoration divers.
As well as raising awareness of the project, the fundraising event generated over 30,000 USD. In addition to this, just a week later Carnival broke their silence and pledged a further 100,000 USD to the fund as a gesture of good will while making it clear that they still accepted no responsibility for the accident themselves. This pot of money has enabled the project to really get traction. With the team ready to start pouring concrete on the dead areas to create a solid base for new life, it came in at just the right time.
As divers, we are fortunate enough to see parts of the planet that others can only dream of. This prime position however, also gives us front row tickets to see the destructive effect that humans have on the ocean. As sad as it is to see yet another blow to Mother Nature, witnessing the efforts that some people will make to help the environment can be truly inspirational. The reef restoration project in Grand Cayman is a perfect example that if we work together we can help to make positive change, no matter how hopeless it may seem.