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.
This is the second in his series about his experience on the Golden Shadow’s expedition to conduct research on coral reefs in the eastern Caribbean islands. You can read part one here.
For the past several days, I’ve been aboard the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation’s Golden Shadow, a research vessel anchored off the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. Here, in a partnership between the Living Oceans Foundation and The Nature Conservancy, I’m leading a 12-person scientific diving crew on daily coral reefs surveys.
Today began like the previous five days of the expedition. We awake at 6:30 a.m. and prepare all of our equipment, make sure our scuba tanks are full, and that we have new data sheets, our underwater journals for recording the reefs’ vital signs.
Then it’s up to the ship’s mess for breakfast and a briefing about the day’s research plan. Today, we’re heading to the northeast corner of the island.
Around 7:30 a.m., we load up the support boats with our dive gear, survey equipment, and two scuba tanks for each of the 12 scientific divers. We’re also joined on the boats by a local dive operator and his crew, a deck officer from the Golden Shadow to captain the tender, and the ship’s physician and nurse.
By 8:30 a.m., we’re underwater. On these dives, I serve as both teacher and researcher. Today I’m working with my dive buddy Graeme Browne, a conservation officer from St. Kitts, to teach him how to conduct reef surveys.
I look on as Graeme lays out a 10-meter transect line and records any and all sea life that lays directly beneath the line in 10 cm intervals. I quickly swim along his line, and if I see anything unusual, I point it out. If Graeme’s not sure about any marine life he sees during the survey, he swims over to ask for my help.
Working with local divers like Graeme is just one way The Nature Conservancy is building capacity for conducting these intensive scientific surveys. For St. Kitts, coral reefs are the heart of people’s livelihoods, economy and way of life, so we have a shared interest in helping reefs recover.
For my own research, I lay out another 10-meter transect line. I’m conducting a coral survey, identifying every coral over 4 cm in size within a half meter of the line to measure maximum coral widths, lengths and heights. I also look for any disease or bleaching, and estimate the amount of live tissue and areas of dead coral.
This site has some of the best coral structures we’ve seen so far on the expedition. It’s spectacular to be here to see reefs that have been growing for hundreds of years and are covered with a Technicolor cornucopia of corals, sponges and algae teeming with reef fish.
But, as with the other sites we’ve visited, these reefs have been hit hard by the threats facing reefs throughout the Caribbean: bleaching and disease, both a result of warming ocean temperatures.
We’ve also surveyed sites under siege by one of the region’s most unwanted visitors: lionfish. Lionfish are an invasive species that have been invading waters throughout the Caribbean, devouring anything they can fit into their mouths.
These signs of trouble would more despairing if it weren’t for other signs of hope that we’re finding. Amongst the once great corals are many small young corals or “coral recruits” as we call them. This is a really inspiring indication that if we can work hard to reduce the threats facing coral reefs, there are young corals coming into the system that can regenerate the reefs.
This is our charge on this World Oceans Day: to work hard to alleviate threats like climate change and give the reefs the opportunity to recover.
After about an hour underwater, we wrap up our surveys and begin our ascent to the surface from a depth of 45 feet. We pause at 15 feet for a three-minute safety stop to help our bodies deal with the excess nitrogen we have absorbed breathing compressed air at depth.
As we exit the water, Georgina, the ship’s nurse, and Phil, the ship’s physician, record our dive times and maximum depths. This is important information to plan our dives safely and keep track of everyone’s dive profiles. We spend an hour motoring slowly to our next site and switching over to new dive tanks.
After our afternoon dive surveys, we motor back to the Golden Shadow. Today, like all our days on this expedition, has been exhausting but productive. We now know so much more about the coral reefs of St. Kitts than we did before—and this research will ultimately go a long way toward expanding marine protected areas and better managing coral reefs.
Tomorrow, we’ll be back in the water. World Oceans Day will be over—but our job to dive deep into the Caribbean’s coral reefs continues. With this knowledge, I will sleep well as the Golden Shadow glides through the night.
(Image: James Byrne conducting an underwater survey to assess the health of coral reefs. Courtesy of James Byrne.)