This week we visited namesake places of two famous Frenchmen, Jacques Cousteau and Napoleon Bonaparte. More on Boney soon; this post is about two days snorkeling in the Cousteau Marine Reserve, surrounding Pigeon Island on the west coast of Guadeloupe. This reef is not the massive, purely coral structure you see in the Bahamas or the Great Barrier Reef. Instead, like many parts of the eastern Caribbean, it features coral heads growing on large rock formations. Still, the coral and sponges were impressive, and – here’s the really good news – alive and healthy looking. There were mature fish and large schools. In fact, we accounted for just about every species in the abbreviated guide I carry in my dive bag.
I don’t want to get ahead of myself. For the last twenty years I have grown increasingly depressed by the obvious decline of coral reefs in the Caribbean, the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, even the Indian Ocean. “Wait,” I hear people say, “you need to dive in (Belize, Bonaire, fill in the blank). It’s the best!” Unfortunately, while it may be true that location A is better than location B, most people simply have not been scuba diving long enough to see the problem evolve. They assume that the reefs they visit are healthy because they are beautiful, and who can blame them? Diving in clear, tropical waters is a stunning experience. However, most reefs are not what they were in the recent past. I began diving 35 years ago, and I was fortunate to see many of these places in their prime. My father began diving in the Caribbean in the late 1950s, and he states it even more emphatically: the decline of coral reefs – characterized by bleaching, algae blooms, the loss of mature fish stocks, and overall the collapse of the reef ecosystem – is not something that is starting to happen. It is a thoroughly advanced trend.
Thus I was overjoyed to snorkel the Cousteau Reserve, especially after finding nothing but dead coral and green algae in Barbuda and Antigua, just to the north. Why the difference? Aside from the obvious, like the park’s ban on fishing, I don’t know. Can the success at Pigeon Island be replicated? I cling to this hope. After all, I grew up enamored by the Cousteaus’ documentaries on public television. Realistically, however, the solution depends on the nature of the problem. Is coral reef decline the result of global warming and ocean acidification? Nitrate-rich fertilizers and septic waste? Other chemical pollutants? How much does overfishing contribute? What about the impact of divers, boaters, and others who visit the reefs? The scientific literature points to multiple causes, and the mechanisms are complex, with multiple feedback loops. After all, a reef is neither flora nor fauna, but a complex ecosystem.
On Strider we’re trying to do more than complain. We are careful to avoid damaging coral and grasses with our anchor. We use our holding tanks and discharge miles from shore. And we are collecting water samples at each stop during our cruise, looking for trends in water temperature, salinity, PH, and nitrate levels. I can’t promise we’ll make any scientific breakthroughs, but at least we can learn as we sail. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with two confessions. First: as a boy I used to know (and sing) all the lyrics to John Denver’s “Calypso.” You can laugh, but if you click on the link it will brighten your day. My second confession: I admit to taking Owen and Megan to the Cousteau Reserve, and other such reefs, partly as a hedge against the real possibility that they will not have the opportunity as adults. That may be cynical, but I am grateful my parents did it for me.
Sunset from Pigeon Island. Moments later we saw the green flash (but the camera didn’t).