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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.

Like 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, irreversible change.

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 turquoise water.

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 1000.

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 bleached staghorn.

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 home.

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 century.

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 wrong."

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 heading home.

"They were picking the reef clean for survival."

   

 

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