Next week I’m returning to the island of Curaçao for the final field research season of my Ph.D. The trip will mark my fifth fall spent in the southern Caribbean, as well as my fifth time rearing baby corals to better understand what makes these unique animals tick.
The island has become a second home to me, and one that I’ve grown to appreciate deeply. Curaçao is perhaps more industrialized and built up than other Caribbean islands, but its pockets of great beauty make it the gem that it is. This perspective, though, may even better depict the state of the island’s coral reefs: patches of magnificence.
In early July I attended the 10th International Coral Reef Symposium in Cairns, Australia. This coming together of coral reef scientists happens once every four years and provides a venue to assess the health of the ecosystem on a global scale. Most of the news was dire: reefs are declining throughout the world and it’s largely the result of human activities like pollution and climate change.
Retired SIO professor Dr. Jeremy Jackson was awarded the Darwin Medal for lifetime achievement and during his acceptance speech he presented preliminary results from a compilation of all the available data for the number of live corals throughout the world.
His message was that all hope isn’t lost. Despite what Caribbean-wide averages suggest, vestiges of reefs abundant with corals still exist. And Curaçao, the data show, is one such place.
In addition to sheer numbers, Jeremy spoke of variability in coral abundance, imploring scientists to consider reef health at the scale of islands rather than ocean basins. By not considering islands on their own we miss the greatest conservation successes and the worst failures, he argued, going on to say that locales can be fundamentally different from one another for reasons that are natural in addition to human-induced. In other words, natural conditions as well as the human footprint make certain places good or bad for corals.
My colleagues and I are taking Jeremy’s advice one step farther. When we look among the many reefs of Curaçao we find that the number of live corals varies dramatically reef-to-reef—some are teeming with life while others are graveyards. The crown jewels are the reefs of Easpoint, a sixteen-mile stretch of untouched chaparral wrapping the eastern tip of the island. Offshore live more corals than anywhere else on the island and their abundance more than triples the Caribbean-wide average.
Eastpoint has become the focus of my dissertation work both because of its great health as well as the growing risk to that health. Land ownership may change hands there, allowing the area to be developed and likely bringing with it many of the human-caused ills that have led to the demise of other reefs.
Efforts to conserve Eastpoint are alive, though, and one of my contributions is to add to a growing body of knowledge explaining why this area is so stunning. My colleagues and I are finding that certain species of coral produce more babies at Eastpoint than at other reefs. This not only bolsters local communities but it likely reseeds ailing reefs at other sites.
The larval phase, when corals are babies, is the only period during which these animals can move, much like seeds of trees. But instead of being pushed by the wind, coral larvae are pushed by water currents, drifting with the sea until they find a place to settle down. As the fates would have it, currents consistently push water east to west along Curaçao, rendering every other reef on the island down current from Eastpoint’s seemingly abundant supply of offspring.
So in Curaçao we see a positive synergy of what Jackson described as the factors controlling coral vitality: nature and humanity. Eastpoint is vibrant and healthy in the absence of people and its physical location is of great fortune for the island as a whole, holding on as a shining example of the hope that still exists for Caribbean coral reefs.
Photo: © Paul Selvaggio