“I see dead coral – and in the back of my mind I’m saying, we can do something about this.”
Lois Hatcher, who has been diving for more than 30 years and has seen the world’s oceans decline, IS doing something about it. She’s leading a hard-core group of volunteer divers in Grand Cayman who are working diligently to restore a large section of reef damaged by a cruise ship anchor in mid-September. They have been sifting through the rubble and dead coral, and salvaging pieces of live coral.
“If the pieces still have a little keyhole of light, the coral is still alive,” says Hatcher, who dives five days a week as the Photo Pro for Ocean Frontiers, and as project co-coordinator and a team leader, spends her days off at the recovery site. Lois and her team have already “out planted,” or reattached, about 15 pieces of live coral.
“We are trying to focus on the slow-growing corals and attaching them to open areas in the surrounding reef to give them a chance to keep growing. We are seeing signs of life and this gives us hope,” she says. “They are looking really, really good!”
Lois Hatcher is using proven techniques that she has learned from some of the world’s leading experts in coral restoration; Dr. Alex Brylske, a renowned professor of Marine Environment Technology at Florida Keys Community College and Ken Nedimyer president of the Coral Restoration Foundation.
She was enrolled in Dr. Brylske’s first undergraduate course in coral restoration, and spent a year taking other marine science classes. Her former professor remembers an eager and enthusiastic student, so he’s not surprised by the role she has undertaken with the Magic Reef Restoration Project.
“I expected no less from Lois, even though it’s taken longer to happen than she had hoped,” he says. “Her goal was to do exactly what she seems to be doing—taking what she learned and applying it in other areas.”
Ken Nedimyer says the restoration work is a start in the right direction. “Some people look at it as too little too late, but the little bit of progress being made is better than inaction. Like me, Lois has spent a lot of time underwater and has come to appreciate all the little creatures there, both big and small. She has seen first-hand the dramatic decline of coral reefs in the Caribbean, so she has sought out ways to help.”
“Lois is a solid, dedicated team leader – the backbone of this project – and she knows her stuff when it comes to coral restoration,” say project co-coordinator Keith Sahm of Sunset House. “She has spent countless hours driving back and forth from East End, where she lives, to work on the damaged area every minute she has free. Lois intends to do whatever she can to see the coral reefs of Cayman get back to where they were!”
Sahm and Hatcher both say the biggest challenge to the restoration project, estimated to take a year to complete, is keeping up enthusiasm among the volunteer divers, whose numbers are dwindling as business picks up in advance of season. Both Dr. Alex Brylske and Ken Nedimyer have advice on that.
“In my experience there’s no need to keep volunteers motivated,” says Dr. Brylske. “Folks who do this are always willing to help. The only thing that can thwart enthusiasm is for projects to be hindered or halted by governmental interference or red tape. That’s the death knell to any project.”
“Empowering recreational divers to help restore our coral reefs is an essential step in doing this on a scale big enough to make a difference,” adds Nedimyer. “Appreciation and recognition will go a long way.”
Sean Kingscote, a regular volunteer diver, says the team can count on him. “Volunteering is in my blood and have raised my children to understand that by giving back selflessly, it will be reward enough in the end. So until this reef is repaired I will be out as often as I can to help.”
The volunteers are already reaping the rewards of their work by witnessing life return to the damaged reef.
“Today I saw a decorator crab with big pieces of algae attached to its shell – and I hadn’t seen one in 20 years!” says an excited Lois Hatcher. “Now we have a friendly grouper that has moved in and it follows the divers around watching us work, we call it the ‘Supervisor.’ It reminds us that these creatures need a home so what we are doing is repairing their home.”
Ocean Frontiers co-founder Steve Broadbelt was well aware of Hatcher’s background and training when he hired her in 2012. He plans to establish a coral nursery at Ocean Frontiers, one of Grand Cayman’s most conservation minded companies.
“East End has the healthiest reefs on the island and we want to keep it this way by being prepared for environmental challenges that may come up,” says Broadbelt. “The nursery will be an on-going coral farm to help seed our reefs as needed to keep them healthy and thriving.”
During the past 20 years Hatcher has seen first hand the changes in Cayman’s reefs.
“The Elkhorn and Staghorn coral that used to be plentiful here are now hard to find,” she says. “We need to stop the loss of coral – if we save half of it, its still better than none and complete loss.”
Ken Nedimyer says the coral reefs of the world, and particularly the Caribbean, are in a very serious state of decline. Some are almost totally gone, so coral “gardening” is their last hope.
He says coral nurseries and coral gardens now exist in Fiji, Indonesia, Maldives, India, Israel, Egypt, Philippines, Japan and other places worldwide. In the Caribbean there are coral nurseries in the Bahamas, St Thomas, St Croix, British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Belize, Bonaire, and Colombia. The Coral Restoration Foundation is planning to start nurseries in Jamaica, Curacao, Guadeloupe, the Grenadines, and Barbados during the next year.
Lois Hatcher likes to remember a quote from one of her heroes, when she’s tired and thinking about the daunting task ahead them as they repair the coral reef.
“Oceanographer Sylvia Earle says ‘No Blue, No Green.’ If we don’t have the ocean, we don’t have us.”
For more information on the restoration project and to volunteer visit the project’s Facebook page.
About Ocean Frontiers and Compass Point Dive Resort
Ocean Frontiers Dive Shop is located at Compass Point Dive Resort on the remote East End of Grand Cayman. Founded in 1996 with one dive boat and a dream to introduce divers to the wonders of East End diving, the company has grown into one of Cayman’s premier dive operations with a reputation for catering to small groups and having the island’s friendliest staff. Ocean Frontiers is also recognized as one of the most conservation-minded dive operators in the Cayman Islands with a long history of promoting ocean protection through its company programs, and an unwavering support for outside environmental projects. The winner of Project AWARE’s Environmental Achievement Award in 2004 and 2010, Ocean Frontiers has again been recognized in 2012. The company also received the PADI Green Star Dive Center accreditation in 2012 for demonstrating a dedication to conservation, the first dive operator in the Cayman Islands to receive this distinction.
The Compass Point Dive Resort, which received the Green Globe Certification award in 2010 for sustainable tourism, is the epitome of laidback luxury. It features 28 luxurious one, two and three bedroom oceanfront, ocean view and poolside condominiums, each with its own private patio or balcony and all beautifully decorated with stylish island décor, and fully equipped with all of the comforts of home. Eagle Ray’s Dive Bar and Grill is now open for business at the resort.