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  • Writer's pictureHelen

Cleaning Corals in the Caribbean

Updated: Jun 12, 2022

Two-and-a-half years and a pandemic later, I’m back on Bonaire with its wonderful coral reefs and successful coral restoration programmes, and keen to be involved.

For context, Bonaire is an island in the Dutch Caribbean, and is where I learnt about coral reef restoration techniques via the PADI Coral Reef Conservation Speciality, an unforgettable experience. Coral reefs are critically important for the survival of marine life, and therefore for human life too. They occupy less than one percent of the surface area of the world’s oceans, but provide home to some 25% of marine fish life. That the reefs worldwide are under severe threat is an issue which we ignore at our peril.

The coral reefs on Bonaire are in pretty good shape, relatively speaking, yet like reefs everywhere, inevitably are affected by many aspects of modern life, including climate change. Reef Renewal Foundation Bonaire is doing remarkable work in restoring reefs on the island, and is creating a growing army of volunteers to assist them in the process. Propagating corals is a large part of their work, and nurseries where the cuttings grow need maintenance. That’s where we come into the picture.

Kitted up in dive gear, armed with bags of cleaning implements supplied by the admirable Reef Renewal team, my daughter and I headed out for the underwater nursery trees near Buddy Dive Resort.

Housework was never this exciting! Cleaning the nurseries while floating in about 5 meters of water, somehow maintaining one's buoyancy in the current, while inquisitive fish coming up to check on the work, is not an everyday experience. Scrubbing away using steel brushes and Brillo pads, removing algae and various tiny organisms which attach themselves to the branches of the ‘trees’, beats land-based cleaning chores any day. The Spanish hogfish that lingered some eight inches away from my mask was clearly intrigued, and maybe hoping for some tasty morsel to be dislodged. The trumpetfish, parrotfish, blue striped grunts and ever-present brown chromis that passed by barely gave us a glance, graciously accepting our presence in their territory as they always do.

It was the fire coral that was a surprise. Incredibly tenacious, it grows on the nursery trees like a stealthy invader, creeping along the branches and trunks, threatening to engulf the staghorn coral cuttings suspended from the branches where they are busy growing ahead of being planted out on the reef. The need for gloves with fire coral was obvious (it is appropriately named), but I had wondered why our cleaning kits included a chisel-like device. It soon became apparent that the fire coral was not going to be scrubbed away even with steel brushes, and nothing less than a hammer and chisel was needed. Even then, it is tough to dislodge, and involves chopping and cutting and scraping. Tiny victories feel enormous, and then you move on to the next patch for a new battle. An absorbing task, I find myself totally in the present, focused and aware of little else, not even the sound of my bubbles.

An hour passed in a flash, and reluctantly we downed tools. Next time…

See previous blog ‘Gardening with a difference : planting corals on the reefs of Bonaire’, posted April 2021.

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