Coral Graveyards in Antigua

26 Nov
Bob Steneck and George Stoyle doing coral and fish surveys in Antigua
We’ve been in the Caribbean nearly a month now and for the past ten days we’ve been in full research mode, diving and snorkeling each day, usually at two separate sites. This is my cruising ideal- poring over charts to select potential reef sites, poking our way into remote anchorages with a spotter balanced on the bow pulpit as we pick our way through patch reefs and narrow cuts. Then, dinghying out to the fore-reef to snorkel and dive. 
Alaria at anchor near Greens Island, Antigua
That’s the great part. The other side of it, the bit I wasn’t expecting is that everywhere we’ve gone to dive what we see when we get there is desolation. The reefs on Anguilla and Antigua are vast fields of elkhorn corals which can stretch for miles. They are some of the most extensive reefs in the Eastern Caribbean. But to explore them is like finding yourself in an aquatic Cormac McCarthy novel. Nearly all of this coral is dead, and much of it is just piles of rubble recognizable only by their characteristic shape. What remains standing is drained of color and overgrown by algae. There is a little bit of live reef in here, especially in the shallows, but it is vastly eclipsed by the remains of what once was.
Dying staghorn coral in Antigua
Still, our excursions haven’t been in vain. Bob is getting valuable data and even finding occasional things to be hopeful about. For my part, even a dying reef on this scale is a stunning site. In this past week I’ve seen green turtles, solitary and in pairs, majestic spotted eagle rays gliding along the deep edges of the fore-reef, occasional lobsters and rock hinds cowering in crevices. 
A pair of spotted eagle rays on the fore-reef

This green turtle blends right into the coral rubble

The problem is not what I see, or even what I don’t see. It’s what I know I could be seeing. These dead and dying reefs are a far cry from the riotous colors and abundant fish of other, healthier reefs I’ve seen in the past. Bob likes to talk about ‘shifting baselines’ and how we can collectively lose track of what a healthy reef once meant. He has a favorite anecdote, about diving in the Dominican Replublic in the company of a boatload of KLM stewardesses on their first dive. Bob came up stunned by the most degraded reef he had ever seen. The stewardesses came up in awe at the sight of such undersea beauty. 
That is Anguilla and Antigua. It has been wonderful to spend time on reefs again, to dive down and catch blennies peering out of their holes or damselfish protecting their tiny algae farms. But more than anything these sights worry me, leave me wondering if there is any future for coral reefs in the Caribbean. Yes, these are only two islands, and I know there are still places with healthier reefs, but I also know that this is a growing trend. Looking at these grey reefs, drained of life, it’s hard to do more than mourn the loss of these once flourishing ecosystems.
On a healthier reef this colorful trumpetfish would have effective camouflage. In this muted scene he is an easy target

This article was syndicated from Safe At Harbour But Meant For The Sea: DIY Sailing with Paul Calder


  1. Tripp

    I think that Caribbean coral is suffering from a number of stressors including pollution, disease, sewage runoff, sedimentation, acidification, and climate change. But, I think that the reefs are primarily suffering since the sea urchin die-off in 1982 and because of over-fishing of the herbivores that eat the algae. The urchins (diadema) used to eat the algae and allow for coral to grow, but now we have reached a tipping point of algae dominance. That is true throughout the Caribbean.

  2. Paul Calder

    As I understand it, it is a combination of factors creating a bit of a snowball effect. Major events like hurricanes or disease can do a lot of damage to a reef and then human and environmental factors contribute to an inability to bounce back. I believe that hurricanes and/or white-band disease killed most of the coral that we saw, but the reasons that the reef isn’t growing back can be myriad and hard to pinpoint.
    Linda, I’ve actually left the boat but I expect Bob and George would love to go out if the logistics work. I could put you in touch with them. calderp at gmail dot com

  3. Michael Peteler

    There can be natural causes for reef destruction, weather can take a huge toll on a reef. Hurricanes are really tough with pounding surf, huge rainfalls causing choking and nutrient rich runoffs which encourages algae growth.

  4. Rich

    Why is this happening to the reefs in Antiqua and Anguilla?
    I remember when Garrafon Reef on Isla Mujeres, Mexico was alive and vibrant and over packed with life. Now it is brown and dead but being 25 yards offshore and in a public park, its demise was predictable but these reefs are far off the beaten path… aren’t they?

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