July 20, 2011


The expedition team where up with the sun on day 4, ready for a day full of discoveries. A sense of hope grew from the knowledge that the previous afternoon’s dives showed improved reef health. The goal for today’s dives was to find more sections of the surrounding reef that would showcase the healthy examples of corals that the expedition had expected to see in this remote location.

Dr. Earle and her camera rig, (c) Kip Evans Photography

Dr. Earle, who previously spoke of reasons of hope for the reefs here at Swan Island, describes what she saw on today’s inspections of the reefs:

“Today I was able to find some patches of coral that looked really healthy, and that’s cause for hope, because if there are some that are in reasonably good condition, it means that restoration could follow…

When we had a chance to dive in and look around a little more today, there were a number of people exploring – the more eyes the better. It was great to have Wolcott Henry come back with a report of finding a goliath grouper. That’s a really great sign of good health. A nurse shark was also spotted today… I saw one rather large school of surgeon fish, maybe forty or fifty individuals. The ones I’ve seen before were mostly solo, and this was a normal healthy pack. They moved through like a herd of cows. They are grazers after all, and they’ve got plenty to eat here, I dare say. That too is a great sign of hope.”

Also joining Dr Earle was board member Shari Sant Plummer who had the good fortune to spot three squid on an earlier dive.

Caribbean squid observing the photographer, (c) Shari Sant Plummer
Dr. Melanie McField and Dr. Earle, (c) Kip Evans Photography

Dr. Melanie McField joined Dr. Earle for an inspection of the reef and echoed her positive perspective:

“This reef that we found right by the ‘Channel,’ just in front of the ‘Little Swan’ Island, looks a lot better. There’s a ton of endangered (Agripora cervicornis) staghorn coral globally. It’s a Caribbean species, but this is a really nice example of large fans, in pretty good condition, and it’s covering an extensive section of the reef.”

Staghorn Coral is critically endangered and the team was delighted to find large stands
in various size of development, (c) Kip Evans Photography

McField continued, “It also has a few large clumps of the (Agripora palmata) elkhorn coral which also looked pretty healthy. And there were a lot of juvenile fish, not too many big fish, but a few. Some of the others saw the big goliath grouper and we had a huge barracuda following us. There are still some fish here and if we had full protection out here these could reproduce, repopulate and replenish this area.”

Elkhorn Coral, an endangered species, a welcome sight on our 4th dives of the expedition,
(c) Kip Evans Photography

“I think what we saw today was really how the whole island marine ecosystem looked,” McField reported, “What I’ve been noticing is mostly hurricane damage.This is an interesting case, because it’s not the anthropogenic factors that we usually see of nutrient runoff, or damage from fishing and anchors, and dynamite fishing, and that kind of thing. That’s usually what you see with the coral rubble we saw on the first day. I’m thinking these spots were protected from the storms. Almost every single hurricane that has gone through the Caribbean has gone across Swan Island. It’s amazing that there’s anything at all…”

A trumpet fish hiding among staghorn coral, (c) Shari Sant Plummer

“The stand of staghorn coral we’ve seen is really encouraging. That was really beautiful. Within that I saw a lot of things like trumpet fish, cleaner shrimp, lobster, parrotfish, angelfish, butterflyfish, All the species you’d expect on a reef like this. If we can figure out who’s been fishing here and stop that I think we would have a pretty good chance of recovery.”

Cleaner shrimp patiently waiting for their next client, (c) Shari Sant Plummer

What has become clear in speaking to our team members is that because of their location, the Swan Islands will always have to endure a number of natural challenges. However it is the human influences that these Islands must be protected from and with some help, as Sylvia is so fond of saying, “There is reason for hope.”

Text by Dustin Boeger
Photography by Kip Evans and Shari Sant Plummer


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