The Small Stuff

I’d like to write a book about coral – but not about it dying. Well, not completely. Whether we like it or not, that bit is the reality we are living in. Scary too if you consider the ocean are the liquid lungs of the earth. Coral its famous 240 million-year old resident.

Fisheries, tourism, storm protection – all of these rely of coral reef being alive. Scientists say that up to 50% of the Earth’s coral has died already. With no change in the rate of decline, another 40% is projected to go by the end of this century.

I didn’t always have a thing for coral. Truth be told, I thought coral was a bit boring. It isn’t exactly the most exciting animal. Even before its uncertain fate hit the newsstands, I never got fired up. Except to mull over whether it was really a plant – or not. More than once. And I did a degree in Zoology.

Since July, we’ve been ‘stuck’ here on Bonaire. There are definitely worse places to be stuck in. Bonaire, the ‘B’ in the Dutch ABC’s is safe, relatively speaking, small and easy to get around. It’s full of Dutch civilities. Stroopwafels anyone?

It does have one very un-European aspect though. This island is surrounded by coral reef. The waters of Bonaire are so very clear, and they descend right offshore. The result is wonderful diving conditions just a few kicks from land.

The coral reef in Bonaire looks in much better shape than most places we’ve been to. Bonaire was savvy enough to turn its inshore waters into a marine park back in ancient 1979. This makes it the oldest marine reserve in the world.

In this way, Bonaire foresaw the coming ecological storm. Its protection has slowed the decline of many of its reefs. Turns out having keystone species around like mature, munching parrotfish definitely helps keep coral alive. Strict measures also means no one can anchor and drag through its delicate, carbonate structures.

Bonaire is not without casualties though. They haven’t been that lucky. For millenia, staghorn and elkhorn coral were the most common Atlantic corals. Handy too, because they act as a nursery ground. Many of the 25% of marine species which make corals their home start off as babies on these shallow reefs.

Until disaster struck. Disease began to ravage them, starting in the 1980s. A whopping 97% of staghorn and elkhorn coral have now been lost in the Caribbean. In Bonaire, we heard the shallow waters were so thick with reef, you couldn’t drive a boat through it. It’s hard to believe swimming over these shallow patches of sand. The only thing which gives you a clue is the rubble. Coral skeleton lies everywhere.

After their pioneering marine park idea, Bonaire haven’t taken this shallow coral loss lying down either. They’re trying to re-build. They got the idea themselves from Florida, which also saw a devastating loss. A system akin to an underwater garden developed.

The scientists from Florida worked with Bonaire’s scientists and Bonaire now has it’s own fully-fledged programme, Reef Renewal Foundation. They are trying to re-cover the shallow water with staghorn and elkhorn. Like re-laying a living carpet.

Meanwhile, it seems our lives have all changed. Stage 1: simply protect spaces and habitats from human development – is over. It seems we have bigger problems now. Stage 2: The Earth’s temperature rises and there’s a permanent change in the proportion of atmospheric gases and oceanic pH. No more sweating the small stuff.

For many of us though, the small stuff is all we have. This is the bit I love.

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