To Build A Reef

photo-Lorenzo Mittiga

An aquatic island note…

I was ready to get back in the game and volunteer again.  That is one of the many nice benefits about not having to work anymore.  I finally have the time to contribute to a good cause and maybe make a bit of a difference.  This time I chose the Reef Renewal Foundation Bonaire.  Their mission is to protect and restore the reefs of the island by using innovative techniques to propagate corals.  

Why is this important?  There are a number of reasons.  Coral reefs make up a mere 1% of ocean environments but supply habitat for 25% of marine life.  Check out any healthy reef and you will find it teaming with fish.  Worldwide, reefs support over 4000 fish species and offer homes to 80,000+ species of sea life.  Bottom line- reefs are integrally important for the stability of ocean ecosystems.

But before I could begin, the Reef Renewal Foundation requires that volunteers take a 2-day dive course that mixes above-water lectures and demonstrations with underwater work.  I chose to do my course at Wanna Dive, one of the smaller dive shops on Bonaire but one that always does a top- notch job with a friendly staff.  My instructor, Linda, explained a number of things about corals, some of which I was unaware.  Corals are living animals, not plants, that are made up of polyps, soft-bodied organisms which secrete calcium carbonate to form a hard, protective limestone skeleton base.  They have a symbiotic relationship with algae where the corals offer shelter and compounds needed for photosynthesis. In return, the algae produce oxygen and sugar for the polyps.  It’s the ultimate underwater “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” scenario.   

the nursery ‘tree’

Linda led me 20-feet under to a ‘nursery’, a set of four PVC plastic ‘trees’ with fragments of elkhorn and staghorn corals hanging from the branches.  These two coral types were chosen since they are fast growing, offer great habitat for reef fish and are considered an endangered species in need of protection.  The first task was to clean the tree of excessive algae growth, remove invasive fire coral crusting on the plastic and inspect the corals for predators such as snails.  I was also instructed on how to prune the larger pieces of coral growing on the trees.  We clipped off small bits with pliers and let them float down to the sand.  Then we looped fishing line around the corals and hung them back on the tree branches that had space.  These smaller pieces then begin their growth and the cycle repeats. 

Out-planting elkhorn coral

My favorite procedure is out-planting, taking larger elkhorn corals from the trees and making a mini colony on the rocky sea bottom.  This involves excavating an area of rock with a hammer to make a relatively flat surface base for the coral.  Then small balls of underwater epoxy clay are fixed to the rock and the coral in pressed into place.  It takes quite of bit of trial and error to find the right spot.  Often when excavating rock, dots of orange sponge will appear. These inhibit corals from attaching well and a new location needs to be found.  I discovered quickly that hammering underwater is a humbling, slow-motion endeavor. 

So that is what it is like to build a reef.  Yesterday, Linda and I out-planted 15 elkhorn corals in 63 minutes.  I glanced around to see earlier out-plantings that are now thriving.  I looked back to my newly placed colony of six corals.  Already pinky finger-sized fish of brilliant blue and striking yellow darted among the baby elkhorn.  As famed British naturalist David Attenborough once said, I can mention many moments that were unforgettable and revelatory. But the most single revelatory three minutes was the first time I put on scuba gear and dived on a coral reef.  I totally agree with him.  And for me that feeling of wonderment never ends.