Fall of the Magic Kingdom
A journalist goes underwater to see for himself the tragic impact
of human activity on the world's complex and fragile coral reefs
By Colin Woodard, A91
Story and sidebar excerpted from Ocean's
End: Travels Through Endangered Seas with permission of
the author and Basic Books.
most visitors, I came to Belize to see its world-renowned coral
reefs. Belize itself is something of a backwater: few Americans
have heard of this little nation of 180,000 people; even fewer could
find it on a map, a New Hampshire-sized plot of land nestled between
Guatemala and Mexico at the base of the Yucatan Peninsula, facing
the shimmering sea. But as other parts of the Caribbean are marred
by uncontrolled development, more and more U.S. and European travelers
are discovering Belize, a former British colony that hasn't lost
its laid-back, rough-around-the-edges, "what's-the-hurry, man"
character. And a great many of these visitors are underwater divers,
drawn to Belize's barrier reef, the longest and perhaps most beautiful
in the Western Hemisphere. These reefs, which extend in a nearly
continuous offshore ridge along the entire length of Belize's 180-mile
coast, are amongst the last in the Caribbean basin that remain in
more or less pristine condition. As more and more foreigners flock
to the reef, island communities there are experiencing fundamental,
After several days staring at dead and dying coral, I wanted to
see some of Belize's allegedly pristine reefs. Not surprisingly
the best ones turn out to be those farthest from the coast, where
they're concentrated in three ring-shaped island clusters well outside
the barrier reef, twenty to forty miles out to sea. One of these
is the Turneffe archipelago, an offshore chain of mangrove-covered
cayes surrounded by its own barrier reef system. The University
College of Belize monitors the health of Turneffe's corals from
a modest research station on Calabash Caye, a small island on the
far side of the archipelago. The station's director, Vincent Palacio,
had kindly invited me to come out and have a look.
Dr. Palacio, a large and gracious Belizean wearing a Chicago Bulls
T-shirt, greeted us warmly as we tied up at the Marine Research
Center's dock. He placed me in the capable hands of Jonathan Kelsey,
an American marine biologist and Peace Corps volunteer who was helping
manage the Center's coral assessment program. The Center-a small
compound pound of wooden buildings next to the beach-housed scientists
and volunteer divers who for months had been surveying the health
of the local reef as part of an international data collection effort.
Together with more than two dozen other marine laboratories in the
Caribbean, the Center forwarded its standardized reef assessments
to Jamaica's University of the West Indies for detailed analysis.
Unfortunately, Jonathan found himself in labs and offices more
than in the water, and was pleased to have a professional excuse
to get into his SCUBA gear. The plan was first to snorkel around
the shallows inside the reef, then take a boat further out and dive
the outer reef wall. We expected both areas to be in excellent condition.
A quarter-mile off the beach, the coxswain idled the engine and
we drifted. Our diving party strapped on our fins and rolled into
the shallow turquoise water. We were a thousand yards inside the
protective wall of Turneffe's outer reef. Its crest was a few feet
underwater, but I could see the white surf crashing over it in the
middle distance. Just a little before that line of surf, the reef
rises from the shallows like a living fortification protecting the
island from the fury of the open Caribbean.
The sea was so warm none of us wore a wet suit. Unencumbered by
SCUBA gear, we could move quickly over the shallows, and I ducked
my face under the surface to survey the corals below.
It was an alarming sight.
I was floating over a gently sloping plane of sand covered in coral
heads and stretching as far as the eye could see in the crystal
clear water. It was clearly a rich coral environment. They covered
much of the bottom in rocky formations of all shapes and sizes:
egg-shaped boulders the size of lounge chairs, coral bouquets that
look like moose antlers, great thickets of antler-like finger coral,
and a huge ornamental "tree" of elkhorn coral, its branches
casting shadows in the sand beneath its base. Colorful sponges,
sea fans, and schools of tropical fish completed what should have
been a most beautiful scene.
Only something was very wrong. The coral heads should have been
rich in color. Brown elkhorn coral, golden and mustard-yellow star
corals, corals in greens, blues, browns, and reds. Instead, bright
white boulders dotted the seascape in all directions, a sign of
severe coral distress. A centuries-old stand of elkhorn coral as
big as an elephant was now dead and smothered in a thick two-year
growth of brown algae. We found long stands of finger corals, normally
yellow and brown, now bleached bone white. Across the plane, the
corals appeared to be dying.
Jonathan was shocked. Just two weeks before he had snorkeled in
this same spot and all the corals had been healthy. In past years
the University had searched in vain for examples of bleached corals
to show interested guests. Now most of the back-reef plane was dotted
with white, which for corals is the color of death.
We climbed into the skiff and the coxswain swung us onto a northerly
heading and opened the throttle all the way. The boat pounded through
growing wave crests as the rest of us prepared our dive gear.
We would be diving on the outer reef wall near Blackbird Caye,
Calabash's immediate neighbor in Turneffe's chain of islands. A
mile off Blackbird's coral beach, the driver cut the engine and
the four of us put on masks and fins-these already dry although
we'd finished snorkeling only fifteen minutes before. Sea surface
conditions were flat so we'd be making a one-way trip down the reef
while the others followed our surfacing bubbles with the boat. To
orient myself, I asked Jonathan what the reef topography would look
like. "Don't know," he said. "I don't think anyone's
ever been diving here." With that he sat on the gunwale, held
his mask to his face with one hand, and rolled backwards into the
A few minutes later we were all bobbing in the water a few yards
from the boat. Watches and dive computers were set and, with a thumb's
down signal from Jonathan, we emptied our vests and began sinking
slowly down into the realm below.
With a soft kick, I rolled slowly into a horizontal position, facing
downwards like some slow-motion sky diver. I was gently falling
over a mountainous landscape, a living coral range running north-to-south
in parallel with the caye shores hidden somewhere a half mile to
my right, Turneffe's protective barrier reef. The crest was some
fifty feet below, steadily advancing, its details emerging from
the soothing blue twilight. Buttressing coral ridges reached out
into the deep like claws, forming dramatic canyons between them.
Beyond these ridges the reef wall dropped off in sheer cliffs like
the edges of a bottomless pit. Recreational divers venture no further
than 150 feet beneath the surface; the drop off here fell to nearly
I rolled head-over-heels and looked up at my bubbles rushing towards
the surface twenty feet above. The sun shone through a kaleidoscope
sky, the shimmering plane of surface waves seen from underneath.
In clear water, it is a beautiful sight, this delicate barrier between
air and ocean. Life began on the liquid side of the barrier. It
took billions of years of evolution for our ancestors to break through
to the other side, seizing primordial mud and tide pools, swamps
and riverbanks, later the forests, plains, and mountaintops. Only
in the past century have we hominids started coming back, visiting
the mother-realm with the help of Aqua-Lungs, bottled air, B.C.
vests, masks, fins, and dive computers. We've changed a lot in the
past 360 million years and we feel more than a little out of place
here. But most of us who make the return trip keep coming back for
the rest of their lives.
I did another slow-motion somersault to confront the advancing
landscape. I was falling onto the gently sloping face of the reef
crest, a wall created by untold generations of tiny coral polyps.
The current generation covered the landscape in an array of contour
and structure. Yellow and blue boulders, great brown "moose
antlers" of elkhorn, stubby pillars in reds and oranges, occasional
boulders shaped like disembodied brains as large as a dining room
table; purple sea fans, their enormous "leaves" an intricate
lacework that sieves passing plankton from the gentle underwater
wind. A few feet from the bottom I began letting air into my B.C.
in short bursts, checking my descent. I hung motionless over a purple
barrel sponge so large I could have climbed into it. Houston, I
thought, the Eagle has landed.
A flock of a dozen or more curious yellowfin snappers were checking
me out, swimming with me in slow circles, peering through my mask
with big unblinking eyes. I gently kicked my feet, careful not to
touch the barrel sponge below, and drifted over a bouquet of purple
coralline fingers. An inch-long damselfish shot out from an unseen
crevice, took an aggressive lunge towards me, then shot back beneath
the corals like an upset dog. A moment later it charged me again,
then took station staring up at me, mouth opening and closing with
agitation, and lunged again as I continued to drift past. Just another
enormous intruder to keep away from its grazing territory. Despite
our bubbles, our unusual appearance and scent, most reef fish treated
us as if we were just another species of large, slow-moving fish.
Some were curious, others annoyed, most just went about their business
without paying the loud, bubbly humans much attention.
Several foot-long yellowfin snapper were still following me and
if I gestured towards one it would rush forward to see if I would
offer it food. Even out here fish have learned about hand-outs.
I'd become lost in the proliferation of fish-yellow angelfish, striped
sergeant majors, damselfish and butterflyfish in assorted shapes,
sizes, and colors, a reclusive four-foot-long Nassau grouper, grazing
parrotfish, fish with unusually large eyes, with whiskers, with
false eyespots on their tails, or camouflaged to look like an algae
encrusted rock. It was difficult to concentrate on any one creature
for more than a few moments before being distracted by another,
or by the demands of gauges, buoyancy, and navigation.
Jonathan caught my attention, pointing to a boulder on the slope
by which he was levitating. I drifted close to the coral head-a
star coral of some sort, normally goldenrod brown. But a circle
of bleached white coral had expanded from the center. Even here,
in the deeper, well-circulated waters of the reef wall, some corals
were being bleached, though nowhere near as many as in the shallow
reef flat. A little further along, we encountered a patch of partially
These corals were losing their zooxanthellae, thus their color,
and without them their growth would slow or stop, the polyps becoming
less resilient and more vulnerable to infection. If a coral head
loses all of its zooxanthellae, the colony is likely to die. Many
of the white boulders we'd seen on the reef flat were probably doomed.
A wide variety of environmental stresses can trigger bleaching:
drying (due to a particularly low tide), changes in salinity after,
say, a heavy rainstorm, the ultraviolet radiation in intense sunlight,
even oil spills. But the mass bleaching events that have made worldwide
headlines since the mid-1980s usually occurred where sea water temperatures
have been unusually high. The weather event known as El Niño
displaces warm water currents and is associated with many widespread
bleaching events. Corals may be an early warning system for climate
change. Or perhaps they've simply faced too many human disruptions
to cope with an additional natural stress.
I turned away from the whitening coral head. Fifteen feet below,
a school of silver-blue fish hung nearly motionless against the
reddish-brown cliff face, slowly turning their faces to the gentle
wind of the passing current, moving like a child's mobile. We had
started our slow ascent to the surface, careful to rise no faster
than our smallest bubbles. So I continued watching the hanging school
for several minutes before I realized why they were behaving with
such lethargy. Drifting just underneath the school was a five-foot-long
barracuda, its long prehistoric mouth ajar to reveal rows of pointy
teeth, its chameleon-like body blending with the reddish-brown cliff.
It seemed to be eyeing me, turning circles beneath the schools of
fish and divers, trying to decide which would make a better lunch.
Though we would have made an easy match-our skin soft and vulnerable-we
were far larger than the prey size imprinted into the barracuda's
brain. At the end of [an earlier dive], a surfacing diver dropped
her mask, which sank thirty feet to the sea grass meadow. Two sand-camouflaged
barracuda shot out of nowhere and began lifting, prodding, tossing
the small mask with their snouts. They also have the unnerving habit
of circling divers.
The barracuda remained wracked with indecision. I'd reached fifteen
feet and stopped to give my cardiovascular system a chance to purge
the build-up of dissolved gasses from my veins. I looked up at the
shifting sky, heard the quiet hum of [the] outboard motor waiting
a safe distance away.Time to return to the sweet air of our adopted
Scientists believe corals evolved in the seas now surrounding East
Asia where the diversity and abundance of coral species is truly
breathtaking. The Caribbean is home to approximately seventy-five
species of reef-building corals, but the Indo-Pacific hosts more
than 300 species, many of which are found nowhere else, the product
of 400 million years of evolution. Many may not survive the next
Of the estimated 230,000 square miles of coral reef in the world,
about 10 percent is already dead or dying and another 30 percent
is expected to decline significantly over the next 15 years, according
to estimates by Clive Wilkinson, a coral reef expert at the Australian
Institute of Marine Science. People have damaged or destroyed reefs
in 93 countries. Those in the western Pacific and Caribbean are
believed to be worst affected.
Southeast Asia's reefs are in the worst shape of all. This part
of the world has experienced rapid economic and population growth
in recent decades. There are now 450 million people living in a
region that relies on the sea for 60 percent of its animal protein
needs. Development and hunger have conspired to undermine the foundations
of the region's bountiful corals. Since 1945, half of the region's
mangroves have been cut down to make way for cities, golf courses,
shrimp farms, airports, factories, and shantytowns. Reefs are smothered
in sediments and fertilizers, poisoned by oil and sewage, bombed
with dynamite by desperate fishermen, and sprayed with cyanide by
divers stunning reef fish for US aquariums and expensive live fish
restaurants in Hong Kong. In the Philippines-where blast- and cyanide-fishing
were practiced extensively-nearly a third of the reefs are dead
or severely deteriorated, and another 40 percent have less than
50 percent live coral cover. The figures are similar for Malaysia,
Indonesia, and Singapore. Because of the continual increase in human
populations and development pressures, six leading coral reef experts
from the region predict that, unless substantial actions are taken
to protect them, "most of the coral reefs in the region will
be exterminated" by 2033.
Nor is the situation in the Caribbean particularly rosy. The arc
of island nations that delineate the eastern edge of the sea have
all undergone rapid tourism-related development. Mangroves have
been cleared, harbors dredged, artificial beaches dumped in inappropriate
locations, and forests and ocean reef shallows replaced by airport
runways. Haiti, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, and other Caribbean nations
have experienced rapid population growth, increasing pressure on
reefs for food, tourist curios, even building materials.
Live coral cover along the north coast of Jamaica has fallen from
about 60 percent in 1980 to less than 5 percent. Thick stands of
kelp and seaweed have grown up where the corals once were, preventing
recovery. The seaweeds are continually fed by sediments and nutrients
from the densely populated island, and chronic overfishing has removed
the plant-eating fish that might have kept them in check. Nature
responded: to take advantage of the expanding fields of ungrazed
kelp and seaweeds, the population of the algae-eating Diadema sea
urchin exploded. These black spiny urchins lived in the reefs during
the night, venturing out in large, slow-moving packs after dusk
to feed on sea grasses and other algae. They were an amusing sight
for night divers: dense packs of black pin-cushions venturing snail-like
towards the sea grass meadows. In 1983 these sea urchins suddenly
succumbed to a disease that spread across the basin with ocean currents,
reducing urchin populations by 99 percent. With nothing to keep
them in check, kelp and other large algae overwhelmed Jamaica's
reefs. Throughout the Caribbean corals are now barely holding their
own against the kelps and weeds. All it takes is a random natural
disaster to push them over the edge.
That's exactly what happened in Jamaica. The coup de grace came
in the form of two hurricanes-Allen in 1980 and Gilbert in 1988.
Reefs that appeared perfectly healthy before Gilbert never recovered
from the hurricane's disruptions.
"Look, when you're in Belize and you see all these reefs in
pretty good condition-you say 'yeah, there's extensive bleaching
or coral damage in the backreef, but lots of fish and healthy-looking
coral on the reef walls, looks all right.' But they may be right
on the edge." Jeremy Jackson, an expert on coral reefs at California's
Scripps Institution of Oceanography, had studied Caribbean reefs
for decades, and had just moved to La Jolla from Panama. When he
talks about the region's reefs he sounds broken hearted. "The
key lesson from Jamaica is that you can pile stresses on reefs and
have them still look 'OK' until one day you add the straw that breaks
the camel's back, and the whole system collapses. Before the collapse,
Jamaica's reefs looked a lot like Belize's today." In hindsight
its obvious that overfishing and pollution were weakening the system.
When the natural crises came, as they always do eventually, the
reef was no longer able to cope.
During his professional career, Jackson has watched the deterioration
of reefs off Florida, Panama, and the US Virgin Islands. He's seen
the shocking decline of staghorn and elkhorn coral across the region,
the crash of the Jamaican reefs where much of the pioneering work
on corals had taken place. "Jamaica's kind of a symbol because
it was so beautiful before," he says. "There are a lot
of depressed people like me out there in this field." In the
space of a single professional lifetime, most Caribbean reef systems
have visibly weakened, and many have completely succumbed.
Jackson started wondering just how much deterioration had occurred
in the decades and centuries before he started his work. Using historic
records, he pieced together how the reef communities might have
looked when Columbus arrived in 1492.
"Think about the wildebeests and lions and all that on the
plains of Africa," he said. "Well, there was a world out
there in which the biomass of big animals amongst the reefs was
greater than the biomass of the big mammals in the Serengeti plains.
The absolute minimum number of 100 kilogram green [sea] turtles
was something like 35 million. Think about that: 35 million 220-pound
turtles grazing on crustaceans, sea grass, starfish, and mollusks.
The productivity of those reefs must have been fantastic! The whole
mind-set of scientists about what is a 'pristine' reef is completely
The turtles were wiped out by the middle of the 18th century, hunted
to near-extinction to provide cheap food for slaves on sugar plantations.
All large vertebrates in Caribbean reef systems were decimated by
1800 to feed sailors and slaves, and there has been subsistence
overfishing of smaller vertebrates and invertebrates since 1850.
The latest declines are merely the latest wave, the decimation of
all but the smallest grazers to feed expanding populations. "Coral
reefs," he concluded, "aren't sustainable at even a tenth
of current fishing rates."
At a minimum, Jackson and other scientists say that perhaps 20
percent of coral reefs should be placed in strictly protected marine
reserves, where they would be completely off limits. These reserves
would act as storehouses of biodiversity and marine productivity,
seeding other areas with life. Other areas would be afforded different
levels of protection: no fishing here, only recreational uses there,
this other place set aside for scientific studies. Healthy reefs
would enhance the tourist industry, protect against erosion, and
continue to move human visitors. Relieved of some chronic stresses,
overall fish landings would probably increase significantly. But
Jackson's not very upbeat.
"It didn't really hit me how hard it would be to change things
until recently," he mused. "I was in the Philippines for
a meeting of the International Coral Reef Initiative, and my hotel
was right on the shore. I got up at 5 a.m. one morning and walked
out to look at the ocean. The reef flat at this place was a half-kilometer
wide and it was low tide. I saw all this strange movement out there.
As the sun came up I realized that there were literally thousands
of people out there in that reef flat, filling little bags with
sea urchins, algae, a snail or two-anything they could find-and
"They were picking the reef clean for survival."