July 25, 2011

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With the expedition in it’s final stages, the reefs off Roatan gathered our focus. The Aggressor II’s crew, intimately familiar with these waters, led our divers to their next destination, Pirate’s Point. A wall dive, Pirate’s Point was dominated by gorgonians, black coral and large barrel sponges, giving divers a good taste of the deeper reefs. 
Gorgonians and sponges on the deep reef,
(c) Kip Evans Photography

An important piece of the reef conservation efforts in Honduras has been the recent declaration in 2011, marking Honduran waters as a shark sanctuary. By making a strong stand against shark fishing, the Honduran government has paved the way for the recovery of sharks and the reefs they inhabit. Expedition team member Giacomo Palavicini, explains the importance of sites like Cara a Cara.

A Caribbean reef shark at Cara a Cara,
(c) Kip Evans Photography

“This is the only place in Roatan and probably in a lot of the Bay Islands where you can find Caribbean reef sharks in a still healthy population of mature females. This group is important ecologically for the balance of the reef, they make sure all the fish populations are staying in balance….we are seeing lower numbers of lionfish on the sites where there are Caribbean reef sharks when compared to sites without them.

With the Shark Legacy Project, we’ve tried to obtain a dollar value for live sharks so people can understand the value of these sharks. We’ve determined that these sharks are worth around US$47,000.00 per shark per year. That is a lot of money for the community, and if a shark can live for 30-35 years, that’s amazing. At this site there are 15-20 sharks, and that’s a resource that’s not really being used. It could be generating a strong base for the economic future of Roatan’s eco-tourism and for other countries and areas that share the same type of environment.”

In Spanish the name “Cara a Cara” means “face to face. That name clearly explains the draw of this site, as expedition members had multiple close encounters with Caribbean reef sharks.

David Shaw describes his face to face with the sharks:

“It was my first big shark dive, I guess we had 8-15 sharks. Big, well fed, females that got in pretty close. I don’t know why they picked on me, but I felt like I was in the middle of the action, until Nestor extracted me… It was very exciting. I’ve seen sharks on other dives, but more in the distance and not anything like this. Those were small sharks that were wary and tried to get away from you. These were the opposite.”

A Caribbean reef shark nick-named Sylvia taking a closer look at Expedition divers,
(c) Kip Evans Photography

National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry, had taken the first dive at Cara a Cara earlier in the day before the rest of the expedition divers. However, still in pursuit of more shark footage, he arranged for a second dive later that day. That second dive turned out to be more than he had bargained for.

“Well we went down, and my goal of the dive was to photograph Caribbean reef sharks. Particularly this unique behavior that’s been started here where they’re training these sharks to predate on lionfish, which are an invasive species and are doing a lot of damage to the reefs in the Caribbean. It’s a very novel way to eradicate this invasive species.

My goal was to try to see this behavior happening. I was with a shark expert and we were swimming around and pretty much the whole dive we couldn’t see a single lionfish, we found nothing. There were sharks around and they were pretty well behaved, they were just swimming around keeping an eye on us [then about]… 25 minutes into the dive, they began to act…differently, their behavior began to change.

The biologist that I was with had finally found a lionfish but he was not able to spear it. He just saw it and began swimming towards it; and they keyed in on that and just jacked up their whole attitude and became very curious. They started circling tighter and tighter, so the three of us just sort of got together and waited on the bottom…they were coming in very very tight.

Eventually they dissipated enough for us to begin ascending slowly, and once we got up 10 feet off the bottom everything was fine. But there was a few exciting moments there and little bit of electricity. It was very interesting, I’ve dived with a lot Caribbean reef sharks, I’ve done a lot of shark feeds in other countries, but this was a different sort of behavior, more of a natural hunting behavior that seemed to be taking place there.”

While this expedition has focused on the Swan Islands, there are countless areas that need to be protected. The Bay Islands of Honduras have been fortunate enough to have been granted Marine National Park status. However that protection is not complete.

The Honduran government works closely with local NGO’s, to coordinate and facilitate monitoring and management of the protected areas. The Healthy Reef Initiative, led by expedition team member Dr. Melanie McField coordinates with local NGO’s Roatan Marine Park and Bay Island Conservation Association to work with island communities to define the parameters of restricted and multi-use zones. Many areas have been granted multi-use status rather than restricted status, which means that in areas zoned for multi-use, there is in reality little or no protection. Even in restricted areas, it may only restrict take of a single species instead of broader restrictions.

An expanse of endangered staghorn coral at Cordelia Banks,
(c) Kip Evans Photography

It is with this deficiency in mind that expedition team members Ian Drysdale, the Honduran and Guatemalan coordinator for the Healthy Reefs Initiative, and Jennie Myton, the Honduras Field Manager for the Coral Reef Alliance have invited the expedition to explore Cordelia Banks. Drysdale and Myton, both co-founders of the Roatan Marine Park, hope to promote the need to increase the protection of Cordelia Banks. Drysdale explains why Cordelia Banks is so important.

Cordelia Banks is located on the southern side of Roatan, between two of the major towns, Cocksan Hall and French Harbor. We’ve discovered about 52 acres of staghorn coral, in 2-3 coral banks. Staghorn coral is a critically endangered species it’s on the CITES list and to find such a live colony is very exciting.

Map of Cordelia Banks, Roatan, Honduras

One of our hopes for Cordelia Banks is to talk to the local population, especially fishermen that use the area and give them enough information for them to realize that this site needs to be managed adequately and needs to be managed by them. There’s no point in coming in with an NGO and trying to fight our way into protecting a site. It has to be the same users of the resources that realize that they need to start managing it sustainably so that they understand the true value of this site. People are not going to protect something unless they feel empowered, they need to feel that they protected area belongs to them. Imposing laws and regulations invites opposition. By recruiting the community to help manage the resources, then that battle is already won.

Multiple species of coral comprising a healthy reef at Cordelia Banks,
(c) Kip Evans Photography

With that goal in mind Myton lead Dr. Earle and a group of divers to Cordelia Banks to see the unlikely expanse of staghorn coral. One constant in all the dives in the Roatan area has been the strong current. In addition to sharks enjoying the currents that roar through the area, pelagic drifters like ctenophores can be found in large numbers.

A pelagic ctenophore found riding the currents of Cordelia Banks,
(c) Kip Evans Photography

In a healthy reef system, the reef acts as a buffer and refuge from the current for the smaller reef dwellers. Many of these smaller species can be seen at Cordelia, but the larger species, the snapper, and the groupers were no where to be seen.

A spiny headed blenny greets our expedition photographer Kip Evans, (c) Kip Evans Photography

The staghorn corals at Cordelia Banks are clearly a unique jewel for the Honduran people. With the proper protections put in place, and with dedicated stewards like Drysdale and Myton, there is cause for the hope of recovery for Cordelia Banks. As Dr. Earle has made so clear to all of the expedition team members, there is no time to wait, now is the time to act.

Text by Dustin Boeger
Photography by Kip Evans
Edited by Sadie Waddington

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