The International Year of the Reef

The International Year of the Reef

2018 is the third International Year of the Reef which aims to strengthen awareness globally about the value of, and threats to, coral reefs and associated Ecosystems. Today, we are faced for the first time with losing an entire ecosystem on which we depend.   If we succeed in saving coral reefs, we will not only save hundreds of thousands of species that support billions of people around the world, but we will have also created the momentum to save other ecosystems that are vital to our planet’s health.

Here at Gapforce, through our programs located on the Andros Island in the Bahamas, we have been working to save these delicate ecosystems for over 10 years, and we understand that it is likely this fight will be won or lost in the next 10 years.

So, what are we doing to prepare for this challenge and how can you get involved?

In order to answer this question, we have interviewed our Chief Scientist in The Bahamas, Darcy Philpot, to learn more about what Gapforce teams are currently upto on Andros Island and what to expect as a participant on the project

What is this new project all about?

In April, Gapforce, in partnership with ANCAT (Andros Nature Conservancy and Trust), received a brand new coral nursery as part of an initiative by the Reef Rescue Network. This organization aims to assist the creation and management of coral restoration projects throughout the Bahamas and Caribbean. Coral nurseries are becoming an increasingly popular method for rehabilitating our reef systems, which have been severely impacted through both anthropogenic effects and coral bleaching episodes. Andros is the third-largest fringing barrier reef in the world, but in recent years the coral reefs have been declining rapidly and are in desperate need of our help.

Gapforce and ANCAT’s coral nursery exists in the form of three coral trees sat submerged beneath the waves at a site called Sleepy Normans – named for a nurse shark, affectionately called by myself as Norman, which can often be found snoozing under rock crevices! We carefully hand-picked coral fragments at a nearby site to be grown on each of the coral trees. After a year we will explant these fragments back onto the reef, where the coral will continue to grow, becoming a marine ecosystem that will attract marine life back on the reef!

Now our job is to maintain these corals so that they are growing healthily. This means regular coral maintenance dives to clear away any algae (which could impact the coral growth) and keeping close observations of the corals as they grow.

This project is a fantastic opportunity for any future or potential volunteers and is something which I am so excited for Gapforce to be a part of. The health of coral reefs is integral for maintaining biodiversity and is responsible for millions of livelihoods. This project has the potential to revitalise Andros’ reef system and we hope to be able to continue to establish coral restoration projects after this pilot scheme.

How else is Gapforce involved on the Andros?

Gapforce is proud to have a big community presence on Andros. We organise weekly beach cleans, with the help of the local community, focusing our efforts on clearing the plastic waste found washed ashore.

Our volunteers are also responsible for leading marine conservation themes at the local primary school. This is a great opportunity for our students to teach the school pupils from an early age the importance of looking after our marine environment and on the biology of sharks, turtles and dolphins (just to name a few!)

Most importantly is our regular survey work on the Andros Marine Park, a marine protected area which is just outside camp! Our volunteers participate in coral and fish surveys which, in partnerships with the BNT (Bahamas National Trust) and ANCAT, ensure that we monitor and collect data on the abundance of marine life and the health of the coral reefs.

Can you share what a typical day may look like for a participant here?

Our day starts bright and early with the mornings sunrise. We feast on a breakfast of porridge – which most volunteers learn to either love or hate! Then it’s dive, dive, dive, as we lead two or three different dive groups in the morning, which we will either be training or taking on survey dives. In the afternoon we all unwind by taking a dip in the sea whilst the scorching sun is out! Rotationally, our volunteers are responsible for the evenings dinner – of any inventive concoction that they might so choose! We host a weekly quiz night or movie nights to keep our volunteers entertained, as well as our infamous Saturday night BBQs! When we’re not diving, you will most likely find us visiting one of Andros’ 178 blue holes, although our personal favourite is Captain Bills Blue Hole which features a great diving platform and picnic area!

What should a participant expect to gain from the Bahamas Marine Conservation Program?

Our programme allows complete diving novices to progress through open water, advanced and EFR training at an individual’s pace, and allows them to become safe and capable divers. We then train our volunteers survey techniques which can be used to monitor the marine life on the reef. Volunteers then use these skills learned to measure the abundance, distribution and size of fish on the reef as well as measuring the composition of the sea-bed. Our efforts contribute to yearly survey data, which is used to monitor the effectiveness of Andros Marine Park.

Aside from the diving skills learnt, volunteers also gain a whole host of life building skills. From learning how to live in close proximity to a large group of people… and cooking for them! They also establish life-long friendships with people from all over the world and gain an appreciation and determination for protecting the marine environment.

What aspect of your work are you most inspired by?

As cliché as it might sound I am inspired by the volunteers that I get to meet and work with. Their enthusiasm for learning all the fish species and their passion for marine conservation is what I most enjoy from this project. It is also amazing to see how much their diving skills improve and by the end of the phase they are fully fledged marine surveyors!

Do you have any advice for participants considering the Bahamas Marine Conservation program?

There is no denying that the living conditions are basic – we live in a wooden shack on the beach (!) but so comes with that an appreciation for the finer things in life. The friendships gained and the diving alone more than make up for the missing luxuries. This, coupled with the knowledge and appreciation of the marine environment gained, make the Bahamas Project simply one-of-a-kind. We are lucky enough to have some incredible marine encounters which make for some truly epic diving memories. Why not have a look at our Instagram page: greenforcebahamas, which gives you an insight into the world we live in!

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