Elkhorn and Staghorn Fields in Bonaire

Tales of coral reefs in decline seem to be omnipresent. Various ocean conservation websites list estimates like, “75% of the world’s coral reefs will die by 2050” (http://www.coralvita.co/). Snorkeling along a coral reef I cannot help but wonder if 5, 10 or 20 years down the road will this beauty still be here at all?

Species of Acropora corals, or branching corals, known as elkhorn and staghorn naturally form dense thickets of reef in relatively shallow waters offering home for numerous fish and marine invertebrate species. However in the 1980s and early 1990s whiteband disease took a huge toll. This disease is named for a band of white necrotic tissue that spreads from the base of the coral at a rate of 1cm per day. In the Florida Keys, 95% of Acropora corals disappeared.

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Elkhorn coral degradation at Carysfort Reef (Located just east of where I worked in Key Largo, Florida) Photo Credit: Phil Dustan

When I was working in Key Largo, Florida, there was one particular location that allowed students a rare glimpse of a huge elkhorn coral colony. I remember telling students how incredible this coral was given the disease of the past. Students would crowd around for a glimpse of this beautiful coral. But in all of my teaching, I never imagined that someplace else in the Caribbean football fields worth of pristine elkhorn and staghorn coral still existed.

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An immense elkhorn coral field in southern Bonaire

Last Sunday my mind was blown! Our snorkel trip near the southern end of Bonaire Island featured MAGNIFICENT elkhorn and staghorn corals.

This snorkel was not for the faint of heart. After an hour-long swim against the current we reached our first elkhorn, a small but healthy colony that reminded me of my favorite colony back in Key Largo. I dove down and snapped photo after photo, trying to capture the best lighting. When I paused to look up, our instructor was far ahead, unwavering in her push to swim further. And the further we went the more beautiful the reef became. More elkhorn than I could have imagined. When we paused to catch our breath I promptly declared this to be the most amazing snorkel of my life! Our instructor laughed at me and said we hadn’t even gotten to the best part.

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The staghorn coral seemed to go on forever!

When we reached it I knew. It felt like being in the maze during the Triwizard Tournament in the 4th Harry Potter book, only all the walls were thick, dense, healthy staghorn coral. It was a pristine that I thought had been lost forever and I felt like I had gone back in time to a world when coral reefs flourished.

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Fish hiding within the dense staghorn coral thicket.
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An octopus hiding out in this boulder coral colony. Notice the rubble debris it has gathered for a garden.

Although disease, warming ocean temperatures, rising ocean acidity, hurricanes and pollution are constant threats to our coral reefs, it is good to know that there are still places of incredible beauty.

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Underwater Relay Race

On your mark, get set, GO!! Only in this race there was no announcer to call out commands. Instead, the dive instructor completed a series of enthusiastic underwater handmotions which all participants interpreted to mean go and our race was off.

This dive was a challenge of buoyancy control, an essential skill for a scuba diver. To obtain neutral buoyancy in the water one must add air or release air from their scuba vest, known as a BCD (Buoyancy Compensator Device). Then, by regulating the amount of air you take in on a given breath, you can fine tune your buoyancy even further. To complete the relay race successfully CIEE Bonaire students needed highly advanced buoyancy skills. I was assigned to be the group photographer and videoed the chaos that ensued.

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Notice the upright spoons waiting to be set up for the relay race to come.

Step 1) Use your regulator (what you breath from) to fill your dive buddy’s upside down plastic cup with air.

Step 2) Swim with your buddy, carefully holding your cup of air along a transect line.

Not too bad so far, but step 3 was a killer:

Step 3) Take your regulator out of your mouth. Blow bubbles until you pick up a spoon with your mouth from the bottom of the ocean without spilling your cup of air.

If students successfully completed step 3 they could resume breathing from their regulators, replace the spoon upright on the bottom of the ocean, and swim to the end of the transect line.

Step 4) Add your cup of air to the bright orange lift bag.

Step 5) Race back to start and repeat.

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A slightly filled orange lift bag can be seen in the foreground

The team with the most air in their orange lift bag at the end of the race wins. But if at any point you or your buddy touch the ground or break the surface of the ocean, the instructor will dump all of the air out of your lift bag and you must start over.

The most humorous race struggles were watching people blowing bubbles and approaching the spoon but instead bobbing a tongue’s length above it unable to fall down the last 2in. Or after finally reaching the spoon, they realize that all of the air had dumped out of their upside down cup during spoon-bobbing process. By far the best strategy was the grab and go: a fast swim just barely above the ocean floor, grabbing the spoon as you swim over it and replacing it back all in one go.

If you have ever gone scuba diving try to hold yourself to this buoyancy control standard in the future: swim as if the entire ocean bottom was lava so that you never disrupt a grain of sediment with your fins. The coral will thank you.

 

The Journey Continues: Bonaire 2017

After four months in South Carolina, the call of aquamarine ocean water was too hard to resist. I have moved back to the tropics and am working as an Intern Coordinator for CIEE Bonaire, a study abroad program for undergraduate students located on the Caribbean island of Bonaire just north of Venezuela. I am living at a research station for the next 5 months and assisting with undergraduate coursework in coral reef ecology and advanced scuba diving.

What does a day of life at CIEE Bonaire look like?

Students wake up at a luxurious residence hall one block from the ocean. My standards of luxury may be slightly different than most but the fact that my plush mattress came with a pad on top, our living space features comfy reading chairs, and we have hot water for showering I feel like I’m living in luxury.

After breakfast I may spend my morning analyzing research data through CPC (coral point count) technology. This program selects random points on a video of the coral reef we take while scuba diving and counts the frequency of live hard coral, dead coral, algae or sand to determine how healthy the reef is. This method is generally more accurate than my coral surveys in the Philippines because in the field we counted only 200 points, but with the CPC computer program here in Bonaire we count 2,250 points per 50m transect line.

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The ocean just behind where I live

After lunch we are likely to walk one block to the ocean and go scuba diving. Bonaire is known for amazing shore diving, meaning that as soon as you step into the ocean you can start swimming and see amazing corals and loads of fish. Bonaire has enforced strict no spearfishing laws and bans on harvesting coral. Its marine park was first established in 1979 and the success of these protective measures are apparent. I could not believe how many fish live on these reefs of sizes large and small. This was a major difference from the highly overfished reefs I typically worked on in the Philippines, where the remaining survivors tended to be small and cryptic.

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Student are leaving the residence hall where we live and walking around the block to go scuba diving.

Students at CIEE Bonaire can complete Open Water, Advanced and Rescue Diver certifications during the course of their semester. Tempted to join?! The program is still accepting students for Spring Semester 2017. If you are an undergraduate its not too late! http://cieebonaire.org/

And in the evening for study hall we read our fish field guidebooks and think of creative ways to memorize the scientific names of all the fish and coral species we see. Knowing what we are looking at is the first step to analyzing changes that may be occurring to the coral reef habitat due to human interference or to ensuring that we can protect and support this beautiful habitat in the future.

Colorado to Florida

Which state has the highest mean elevation?

And which is the flattest?

I visited both of these states back-to-back this holiday season from snowboarding in Colorado to scuba diving in Florida. When I descended into the tiny airport of Durango, Colorado, the view of snow-covered mountains provided enough exhilaration to keep me warm despite the cold. This trip involved 6 straight days of snowboarding at Purgatory and Telluride Mountain Resorts.

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Purgatory

Purgatory wins points for its affordability and proximity to Durango with enough runs to amaze an east coast native like myself. Telluride was a much bigger game with its high speed gondolas and incredible views.

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On the lift with my brother at Telluride
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Don’t worry its warm! This hot spring kept us warm with a water temperature of 100 F

Departing Durango was a reminder of its small town nature, these TSA representatives were happy to chat with all on coming passengers, but do not expect to move through quickly. Efficiency never seemed high on the priority list. Florida seems to be the most popular destination for Durango airport passengers.

One day later I was driving into Williston, Florida, a small town outside of Gainesville and gearing up to dive Blue Grotto.

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This underwater bell has air pumped in from above water so diver’s can take out their regulator and talk to each other while swimming at 30ft depth.
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Blue Grotto is also home to a very friendly soft-shell turtle.

Next we took a short drive to across the road to Devil’s Den. An opening from above allows light to stream into this huge cavern, which features multiple swim-thrus.

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Devil’s Den

Our final stop on this Florida Springs scuba trip was Ginnie Springs which had multiple dive sites with caves, crevasses, and river eddies to explore.

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Ginnie Springs

Although Colorado’s below freezing weather was a major change from the 80 degree days we scored in Florida, carving down the mountain on a snowboard was enough work to keep me warm. Scuba diving in 72 F water may sound warm, but water can remove body heat 20xs faster than air and I was happy to have my 5mil wetsuit and 7mil hood for insulation.

Crystal clear spring water, light streaming into a dark cavern, carving a fresh powder line down a mountain slope or going swimming with snow-covered mountains at your back…its hard to pick my favorite part of these trips. Filipinos were always surprised to hear I have never visited New York City, but with so many incredible places in the USA some adventures are just higher on my list.