Volunteers work hard to bring Grand Cayman’s damaged reef back to life.
On August 27, 2014, the Carnival Magic dropped anchor off Grand Cayman outside the designated anchorage zone, just south of George Town Harbour. The anchor impact and the subsequent damage wiped out more than 16,000 square feet of reef habitat. In some areas, boulder star corals lay smashed like dropped watermelons, the skeletons of centuries-old polyps exposed and crumbling away. Other areas were pulverised, completely flattened. A wasteland.
Soon after, a volunteer effort dubbed the Cayman Magic Reef Recovery was born in the basement of Sunset House. Under the direction of the Department of Environment, Cayman’s dive community coalesced around the cause of saving what corals could be saved. Lois Hatcher of Ocean Frontiers — whose experience in coral restoration would prove to be invaluable — spearheaded the effort.
More than 30 divers participated in the first restoration dives, kicking out to the damage site from the ladder at Don Foster’s Dive Cayman shop. Divers loaded rubble into milk crates, removed their fins and walked across the sand to deposit the bits and pieces. A few weeks later, techniques became more sophisticated, and the volunteers were moving large quantities of rubble with lift bags. The coral has been outplanted onto adjacent reefs or reattached to where it was found, depending on the depth and size of the corals. To date, around 10 tonnes of rubble have been relocated to create what’s already becoming a popular hangout for schools of juvenile grunts and other young marine life.
Living corals were uncovered from the rubble and nursed back to health in a coral staging area. A raised structure made of milk crates allowed for the coral to receive ample light and water flow. The first corals were epoxied to the substrate, and are currently doing remarkably well. As time goes on, it becomes more and more difficult to discern the replanted corals from native environment.
On February 28, the volunteers went to the public for support and held a fundraiser. The band Red, White & Blues soundtracked an evening filled with food and fun. Around CI$28,000 was raised to help the volunteers get the tools and supplies necessary to carry out their mission. A few days later, Carnival Cruise Lines made a US$100,000 contribution to the Cayman Magic Reef Recovery. The National Trust for the Cayman Islands agreed to administer the funds for the group. In June, the volunteers purchased their own boat, Honey Badger, and the pace of progress began to pick up considerably.
Of course, there have been setbacks along the way. Some important volunteers left the island for other jurisdictions, and others were busy in the everyday balancing act of work and life responsibilities. Immigration has approved a small stipend for volunteers, just US$30 a dive, to incentivise divers in the final push to completion.
The work is hard, but picking up the pieces from an unfortunate incident has been fulfilling. Progress is being made on every single dive, and by November the Cayman Magic Reef Recovery should be entering a monitoring phase.
The surviving corals have been given the chance to flourish, but it’s our responsibility as stewards of the reef habitats around our beautiful islands to protect these delicate ecosystems. Climate change, ocean acidification and development are just a few of the very real threats we are facing. If we want our children’s children to see the beauty of Cayman’s undersea treasure, we all must become guardians of our oceans.
by Joe Avary
photos Courtesy of Lois Hatcher