July 22, 2011


Farewell to the Swan Islands.

The story of the Swan Islands boils down to one subject. Protection. The expedition came to the islands with high expectations. The Swan Islands are referred to as the “Galapagos of the Caribbean”, and it was that description the team carried with them in the long crossing. But the reality of the Swan Islands is that even here on this isolated island, overfishing has severely impacted the reef ecosystems. The expedition repeatedly noted a significant lack of fish.

The western side of Swan Island as seen from the air, (c) Kip Evans Photography

Dr. Sylvia Earle:

“That’s part of why we’re here in the Swan Islands, to look at the nature of this place that has periodically been fished very hard. It’s evident because the groupers are gone, the snapper, any of the big fish, and a lot of the little ones that aren’t taken to market, are also gone. It’s an empty place with respect to fish. The good news is that the elements are still there. There are small numbers, but with a great diversity. That [diversity] provides hope. If we could just take the pressure off…

This place ought to be, not only a safe haven, but a source of renewal for much more depleted spots throughout the Caribbean. It is a hope spot and we need to regard it that way. I hope the people and the government of Honduras will use this as an opportunity to secure this place. It already has a military base established there,and it would give such stature to the country. There’s hope for even the fisherman, if there’s hope for the fish.”

Dr. Sylvia Earle and David Shaw prepare for descent, (c) Kip Evans Photography
Expedition member David Shaw expressed his thoughts on what makes the Swan Islands a strong case for protection and what made this trip special for him.

“I think it’s distance from other divers and fisherman make it hopeful. Some of these places people visit along the way, or in dive boats or fishing boats, but it’s so isolated that it would obviously be a special purpose trip to get there. I think that’s good in terms of protecting the area in the future. It’s not clear if there’s a lot of competition for the site.

I was encouraged by what the shark team found. They got hits about 80% of the time with their bait. It seems like there may be a reasonably healthy shark population, and the reef team found that it’s a lot less fishy than they expected it to be. But there are signs that it’s a great habitat and it could come back.

The dive I liked the best was the cave dive with the grouper and all the fish in that area. It was very shallow obviously, very interesting cave and I’ve never been in a cave before so that was very exciting… The diversity of the site was really interesting and the health of the coral I thought was really good compared to some other places I’ve been.”

A view towards the surface from inside the cave network, (c) Kip Evans Photography

Shark team leader Dr. Rachel Graham sums up her work at the Swan Islands:

“I was hoping that the Swan Islands is serving as a haven for sharks but was really not sure what to expect. I was truly pleased that we observed sharks on 90% of the 28 hour-long deployments of the baited remote underwater videos. We recorded three species, Caribbean reef shark, great hammerhead, and nurse shark. Interestingly, the divers rarely encountered any sharks during almost 200 hours underwater. What was really surprising is that we didn’t observe any adult Caribbean sharks.

Admittedly, I was shocked by the overall lack of large predatory finfish especially in comparison to other sites in the Caribbean where I have worked. We very rarely encountered any large snapper, grouper, barracuda or mackerel. I was really surprised to find juvenile goliath grouper because it’s a critically endangered species that has been heavily overfished throughout the Caribbean, and especially in Honduras.

But again the lack of adult sharks and large finfish perplexes and worries me, and in my mind it’s clear that this site has been recently overfished. The Swan Islands could become a wonderful haven for sharks and reef fish, and potentially a source of fish for other overfished sites in the Western Caribbean. Successful protection and upholding of the ban on fishing at this site and the national ban on fishing of sharks will require committed and well-funded enforcement by the Honduran Government. I hope that our rapid survey will provide additional incentive to protect the Swan Islands and its toothy denizens.”

Damaged elkhorn coral, (c) Kip Evans Photography

Reef assessment team leader Dr. Melanie McField explains her teams successful efforts: 

“I’m really pleased that we were able to get a full complement of 9 study sites completed with this monitoring protocol. This will serve as a baseline for future monitoring efforts. Assuming that we can achieve better protection for the area, we could potentially see improvements in the biomass of fish, reductions in macro algae and increases in living coral.

Those are the changes we would like to measure in the future. If we can help raise the profile of the Swan Islands through this expedition, we may achieve these results in the future. By raising awareness about the natural beauty and conservation value of the Swan Islands we can make it one of the jewels of Honduras’ marine conservation portfolio.”

A healthy stand of pillar coral providing a home for smaller reef dwellers,
(c) Kip Evans Photography


Dr. McField continues, “The Swan Islands really need to have a higher level of conservation and enforcement. Hopefully by having Sylvia Earle, National Geographic and our regional monitoring team survey and photograph this beautiful place, we can raise awareness and attract conservation funding for the area. The wholeness of the terrestrial and marine ecosystems really make these islands unique. There is still hope. We just have to work with our Honduran NGO colleagues and the government to figure out the details.

Research diver Oscar Torres completing reef transects, (c) Kip Evans Photography

“We need to get some NGO funding for assistance and monitoring. Trips like this shouldn’t be a once in a decade event. It should happen regularly. The Healthy Reefs Initiative will continue to help by analyzing the scientific findings from this trip, making management recommendations and assisting with a management plan for the area, and working with other interested NGO’s to find financial support for their improved protection. We can make a difference in the Swan Islands, so that it can reach it’s full conservation potential.”

SeaAlliance board member Shari Sant Plummer still remains positive in light of the obviously overfished reefs:

“I think the expedition was successful. It may have been disappointing in terms of what we found. We went to see what sort of shape the reefs were in at Swan Island and we found out. It wasn’t the answer we wanted but unfortunately that’s more and more common around the globe. It’s not really surprising that even as far away as the Swan Islands are away from any kind of mainland, that they’re still hammered with overfishing. That was disappointing.

It also apparently has been hammered by hurricanes so there is a lot of coral damage from hurricanes, and they are more vulnerable to hurricanes because there are no fish to keep that whole ecosystem healthy and resilient to natural damage.”

Healthy Elkhorn coral sitting atop of a reef outcropping, (c) Kip Evans Photography

Sant Plummer continues, “Even in a reef that is suffering, as the Swan Islands are, you can still find some really incredible fish. Goliath grouper, tarpon, a trio of squid, all those discoveries were highlights for me… It’s still a really beautiful place, well worth protecting, and if it could come back it would be an incredible place.”

An aerial view of the eastern-end of Swan Island, (c) Kip Evans Photography

Kip Evans SEAlliance expedition leader puts the expedition in perspective:

“In planning our expedition to the Swan Islands, we were really diving into the unknown. When you undertake a voyage where little to no data exists, underwater images, or video footage, you have to paint that image for yourself. I painted an image filled with sharks, fish, and healthy corals. But as any explorer will tell you, dreams and reality can be much different. As much as I wanted to find a healthy oasis in the heart of the Caribbean, we found a reef stressed by overfishing and hurricanes. As a diver I’m disappointed, but as a conversationalist, I see an opportunity to help protect the Swan Islands before it’s too late. My hope is that we will be able to take the images and data that we created through hours of underwater work and make a difference for the fish and corals of this area.”

A departing sunset at Swan Island, (c) Kip Evans Photography

As we leave the Swan islands the expedition moves into another phase, looking at other areas in the Honduran Bay Islands in desperate need of preservation, including our next destination the Cordelia Banks.

Text by Dustin Boeger
Photography by Kip Evans


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