The following is a guest essay written by James Byrne, the Conservancy’s South Florida and Caribbean Marine Science Program Manager. Byrne is also a Dive Safety Officer working with researchers in Florida and the Caribbean to ensure scientific diving expeditions are conducted safely.
Byrne and a scientific diving crew will be conducting the first-ever comprehensive assessment of coral reefs off the eastern Caribbean islands. Learn more about the expedition in this post and in this Q&A with Byrne on nature.org.
Even as a marine scientist, I’ve had to pay my dues sitting behind a desk. But this week, I’m preparing for the kind of work I do best…60 feet underwater.
Along with a team of researchers, my office will be aboard the Golden Shadow, a vessel that hosts oceanographic expeditions around the world.
This is the kind of office marine scientists dream about. When she was launched in 1994, the 67-meter Golden Shadow was the largest yacht built in the USA since 1931. In 2006, she was refitted for the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation as part of a fleet of vessels studying the world’s coral reefs.
Next week, in a partnership between The Nature Conservancy and the Living Oceans Foundation, I will lead a nine-person scientific diving crew to conduct the first-ever comprehensive assessment of coral reefs off the eastern Caribbean islands of St. Kitts and Nevis.
My team’s scientific diving surveys will take us into a living laboratory—the quiet underwater world of coral reefs. For St. Kitts and Nevis, marine resources are vital to people’s livelihoods, economy and way of life. The ocean provides fish to eat, the foundation for a thriving tourism industry and the heart of the region’s culture.
But coral reefs are in trouble. The impacts of climate change—rising sea levels and water temperatures—are taking their toll on coral reefs, especially in the Caribbean. The Golden Shadow expedition will go a long way toward developing management strategies that help coral reefs to be more resilient.
In addition to my role as a scientist, I’m also the Conservancy’s Dive Safety Officer for south Florida and the Caribbean, so it’s my job to make sure our nine-person science team is safe during our daily dive surveys. We’re usually underwater for up to an hour at a time and are diving up to 60-feet deep to identify coral species, take measurements, and determine if the coral has been bleached or shows signs of disease.
With her vast diving locker and recompression chamber for treating decompression sickness, or “the bends,” the Golden Shadow will be the perfect platform for our underwater research.
The ship sails with a multi-national support crew. She has her own seaplane—the Golden Eye, a Cessna 208 that can land on water and carry 11 passengers. She carries a variety of speedboats, from small inflatables to a racing boat. She has two satellite telephones, as well as a worldwide internet connection.
With such state of art equipment and amenities, I am honored to have been invited on board. My participation is also a testament to the Conservancy’s completion this past year of a comprehensive Multiple-Use Marine Spatial Design for St. Kitts and Nevis. This U.S. Agency for International Development-funded project involved the St. Kitts and Nevis government, fishers and many other stakeholders to map the values of the region’s fishing areas.
The Golden Shadow expedition will allow us to refine this zoning design, expand marine protected areas, and ultimately better manage coral reefs and the fish populations they support.
I hope the people of St. Kitts and Nevis also take pride in having the Golden Shadow in their waters. The governments had a hand in making this expedition happen, and local fishers have been critical voices in the discussion. This is a special ship with a special purpose.
There’s a palpable feeling of excitement here in St. Croix, USVI, where I’ve been very busy with all of the last-minute planning details for the expedition: selecting coral reef sites to survey, preparing our equipment, and training the science team so we’re ready to hit the water swimming.
Before we launch, my team will spend some time aboard the Golden Shadow getting acquainted with her dive facilities and procedures. Stay tuned…during our voyage next week, I will be posting again to report on the expedition’s progress and life aboard the Golden Shadow.
(First image: James Byrne, underwater. First image credit: The Nature Conservancy. Second image: The Golden Shadow. Second image credit: Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation.)