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Has Global Warming Destroyed the Great Barrier Reef?

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2016

 

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is home to more than 1,500 species of fish, and one-third of the world’s corals. It generates an annual income of $3.9 billion per year, and provides employment for nearly 70,000 people. Unfortunately, and as many divers will know, a recent study shows that this incredible natural wonder is in the middle of an unprecedented disaster. According to a series of surveys undertaken by the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (ARC Centre), 93 percent of the reef’s corals have been damaged by large-scale bleaching. Australia and many other Pacific countries are currently in the grip of an unusually long El Niño, a climate phenomenon that causes water temperatures throughout the region to rise significantly; this year’s El Niño is is particularly severe in part due to greenhouse gases and subsequent global warming.

Led by Professor Terry Hughes, the team from the ARC Centre led aerial and underwater surveys of 900 of the Great Barrier Reef’s individual reefs, which together form a continuous structure around 1,400 miles long. The results showed just 7 percent of the reef system to be entirely free from coral bleaching, with the worst damage focused on the northernmost section of the GBR. In this region, which stretches from Port Douglas to the northern Torres Strait Islands, 80 percent of the reefs surveyed were classified as severely bleached.

Coral bleaching occurs as a result of abnormally high water temperatures, which cause corals to expel the zooxanthellae living within their tissues. As well as giving coral its color, the zooxanthellae provide nutrients for their hosts via photosynthesis — without them, the coral will eventually die. Bleaching can be reversed only if water conditions return to normal and the zooxanthellae are allowed to repopulate the coral within a certain amount of time. Devastatingly, it is already too late for 50 percent of corals in the northern sector of the reef.

Experts working with the ARC Centre expect that this mortality rate could increase to more than 90 percent if the causes of the bleaching are not reversed soon. When speaking of the devastation in the northern sector, Hughes says that the damage caused looks as though “ten cyclones have come ashore all at once.” Fortunately, bleaching in the middle and southern sections of the reef is slightly less severe, with only 1 percent of reefs in the southernmost region classified as severely bleached.

Although only one quarter of reefs in these areas are untouched by bleaching, scientists hope that it is not too late for the majority of the reefs to recover. The healthier condition of the southern reefs can be attributed to greater cloud cover and rainfall in these regions of the GBR in recent months.

The Great Barrier Reef has suffered two other large-scale bleaching events in recent years, once in 1998 and once in 2002, both of which were also during El Niño. However, the current disaster eclipses both of these events, the worst of which saw 54 percent of the GBR affected by bleaching. Climate change is undoubtedly a contributing factor behind the unprecedented damage wreaked by this year’s El Niño, as the effects of the phenomenon are exacerbated by already elevated sea temperatures.

Tragically, the extent of the recent devastation is so extreme that scientists are predicting it will take decades — at best — for the reef to recover, if at all. Many of the corals that have already died were long-lived, slow-growing species that take centuries to form. Consequently, the reefs of the future are likely to be dominated by other, faster-growing species, which will affect the balance of marine life throughout the ecosystem. According to Hughes, the northern Great Barrier Reef may never return to what it once was. To our mind, it’s nothing less than tragedy on a global scale.

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Diving South Africa’s Sodwana Bay

Wednesday, April 27th, 2016

As the rolling farmland of the Transkei began to give way to the lush green of KwaZulu-Natal’s sprawling sugarcane plantations, the feeling of being on vacation finally started to sink in. By that time, we had been in the car for seven hours, but the sight of the blue sea spreading out before us was enough to breathe life back into our adventure. I rolled the window down and took a deep breath of salty air.

It took another four hours after that first glimpse of the ocean to reach our destination. By the time we approached the turn-off to Sodwana Bay, we were almost at the Mozambican border and dusk had begun to settle over the arid bush on either side of the road. As we pulled into our hotel for the next four nights, my excitement reached fever pitch — we were in the tiny town that serves as the gateway to the jewel in South Africa’s diving crown.

Part of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Sodwana Bay is home to 31 miles (50 km) of underwater habitat that constitutes one of the world’s most southerly tropical reef systems. In 2000, the bay became internationally known after a group of technical divers rediscovered the prehistoric coelacanth in the depths of the park’s Jesser Canyon, but it is for the incredible biodiversity of the area’s shallower reefs that most divers flock to Sodwana Bay. No fewer than 1,350 species call the reef home, and divers can expect to see around 60 on any given dive.

I first dived Sodwana in 2013, but this time, we dove with local operator Adventure Mania on the recommendation of a good friend who assured my husband and I of the company’s welcoming atmosphere and innate professionalism. After Adventure Mania’s owner, Jacques, called to confirm our dive time for 6:30 the next morning, we spent the rest of the evening prepping camera gear and toasting our return to paradise with a barefoot meal at gourmet local restaurant The Lighthouse.

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Six o’clock came around quickly. We woke to the soft gray light of dawn seeping through our bedroom curtains, then packed the car for the short drive through the coastal forest to the park gates. We paid our modest entrance fee, then parked our car near a family of mongooses playing in the sand.

Like all Sodwana dive charters, Adventure Mania sets up camp every morning beneath the shade of a glorified beach gazebo. As we approached, we were greeted by Jacques and his wife Amanda with such genuine warmth that I knew we’d made the right choice of operator. Adventure Mania prides itself on a personal touch, with either Jacques or Amanda leading every dive. Jacques also skippers the boat, leaving it in the capable hands of top-man Sipho while he is underwater.

After gearing up, Amanda gave a briefing on our first dive site. Sodwana’s reefs are named according to their distance from shore — Two Mile, Five Mile, Seven Mile and so on, each of which boasts its own number of individual sites. That morning we were headed for Antons, a popular spot on Two Mile Reef, known for large reef fish. We gathered with our fellow divers at the waterline, as Jacques and Sipho used a tractor to push the dive boat into water deep enough for it to float.

As we donned our lifejackets and prepared for the launch, Jacques took the wheel and reached under the console to switch on his waterproof stereo. The opening riffs of AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck’ rolled out and as the engines hummed into life as we all glanced excitedly around. Once we cleared the surf, it took no more than five minutes to reach the dive site. On the way, we saw a humpback whale breaching in the distance; at this time of year, the waters around Sodwana are full of them as they prepare for their great migration south. By the time we were ready to get in the water, I was feeling uncomfortably hot in my neoprene suit. As we rolled backwards into the cool water, the reef was clearly visible through 50 feet (15 m) of translucent blue.

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That first dive was a magical rediscovery of f the colorful reef life for which Sodwana is so famous. Jacques and Amanda’s guiding was wonderfully relaxed, so that instead of being ushered from one spot to the next, we were given the freedom to explore at our own pace. The water was a comfortable 72 F (22 C), and as we moved slowly over the reef, I was pleased to see that its untouched beauty was much the same as it had been on my last visit.

I spent several minutes drifting lazily alongside a school of vivid yellow snapper, watching as they moved with perfect synchrony over a patchwork of hard and soft coral. I found a blue-spotted ray drowsing in the sand and a magnificent marbled grouper lurking in the shadows of a rugged overhang. Bluefin kingfish darted across the reef in pursuit of some invisible prey, a hundred hues of blue and green shimmering across their scales, and the water echoed with the sound of parrotfish grazing on the coral.

Sodwana diving is characterized by great visibility, warm water and relatively easy conditions. The reefs are often shallow, and rarely subject to strong current. And yet, adrenaline junkies and experienced divers need not worry about being bored — the easy conditions provide a welcome respite and an opportunity to focus on other things, like framing that perfect photograph, or scavenging for loose shark teeth in the sand. We dived five times with Adventure Mania on our brief escape to Sodwana, and each dive offered new sights to be photographed and marveled at.

My favorite memories included a dive to Deep Sponge, during which we were serenaded by the haunting song of a passing humpback whale. On Caves & Overhangs, I spent most of my dive swimming alongside a large octopus, who obliged us by posing for photographs as shivering pulses of red and white flushed across its bulbous body. On most dives we saw potato cod, large white-barred rubberlips and schools of silvery, slow baardman.

In between dives, we refueled with cheese toasties from the dive shack on the beach, keeping an eye out for whales as we ate and listening to divers telling tales of their adventures all around us. We soaked up the sunshine in the sand by Adventure Mania’s gazebo, and watched as Sodwana’s resident yellow-billed kites swooped low over the beach in search of lunch. In the evenings, we cheered for the South African World Cup rugby team in the local bar, sat with our feet in the water around the lodge pool as the first stars appeared in the twilight sky.

Our three days of perfect idyll left the spell Sodwana had cast the first time I visited unbroken. For anyone already planning a South African dive adventure, a visit to this glorious country would feel incomplete without a trip to Sodwana. Make the journey north to the border and discover this diver’s paradise for yourself. For those who aren’t yet planning a visit to South Africa…well, isn’t it time you started?

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Remote St. Helena Island Gets Brand-New Airport

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016

At just over 1,200 miles from the southwest coast of Africa, remote, volcanic St. Helena island may be about to burst onto the scuba-diving scene. A tiny blip in the otherwise endless expanse of the South Atlantic, the island is just 6.5 miles across at its widest point, and is perhaps most famous as the place of final exile for Napoleon Bonaparte, who died here in 1821. With a population of just over 4,400 people, it’s the ultimate destination for those who wish to step off the beaten track and experience something entirely out of the ordinary.

Although St. Helena is on the itinerary of a few luxury cruise ships, until now the only regular method of transportation to its shores was aboard the RMS St. Helena, one of the world’s last working Royal Mail Ships. The journey from Cape Town in South Africa took five days, rendering the island accessible only to those with plenty of time and cash to spare. May of 2016, however, brings a new era for St. Helena tourism. At the end of the month, Comair will become the first airline to offer commercial flights to the island’s new airport.

Initially, the five-hour flights will run once a week, transporting 120 passengers plus cargo from Johannesburg to the island and back. Depending on the success of the first flight schedule, flights may be offered with increased frequency in the future. The opening of St. Helena’s new airport has also paved the way for charter companies, with operator Atlantic Star offering a direct route from the U.K. for £1,299 round trip.

On the island’s official tourism site, director for St. Helena Tourism Cathy Alberts says, “the introduction of air links will open up St. Helena to a global audience and well and truly put our island on the map. Travelers looking to plan their next big adventure and discover somewhere untrammeled by mass tourism should set their sights on a visit in 2016.” With its striking volcanic scenery, St. Helena is a nature-lover’s paradise, offering incredible opportunities for hiking, botany and bird-watching. Perhaps its greatest treasure, however, and the one most appealing to scuba divers, is the surrounding ocean.

Diving in St. Helena

Washed by the nutrient-rich waters of the Benguela Current, St. Helena promises perfect conditions for divers. Visibility typically hovers at around 100 feet (30 m), while water temperatures range from 66 F (19 C) in winter to 79 F (26 C) in summer. Like many remote islands, St. Helena has quite a bit of endemic and near-endemic marine life, including rare species of eel, damselfish and gurnard. Deep water is within a stone’s throw of shore, making the island a magnet for bucket-list pelagics as well. Manta rays, whale sharks, devil rays and dolphins are all seasonal visitors to St. Helena.

With a history dating back to the 16th century, St. Helena is also home to a bevy of historic wrecks, eight of which are within reach of recreational divers. Ranging from 39 to 92 feet (12 to 28 m) in depth, they include the Papanui, the Witte Leeuw and the Darkdale. After sinking in 1911 after a fire onboard, the Papanui now lies in 43 feet (13 m) of water and is the perfect wreck site for beginners. The Witte Leeuw (Afrikaans for White Lion) dates back to the 16th century and was a favorite dive site of Jacques Cousteau, while the Darkdale was a victim of WWII torpedo-fire.

Although infrastructure on the island is limited, local operator Sub Tropic Adventures currently offers guided dives, dive courses, sport-fishing excursions and whale-shark and dolphin snorkeling tours. With tourism expected to increase from 2,800 international visitors per year to 10,700 visitors per year by 2020, there has never been a better time to experience St. Helena’s remote reefs and bountiful marine life.

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Limiting Parrotfish Catch Could Save Caribbean Reefs

Friday, April 15th, 2016

According to recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, limiting parrotfish catch could provide a solution to the rapid decline of Caribbean coral reefs. Based on the work of researchers from the University of Queensland, the study is the first of its kind to suggest specific science-based regulations for Caribbean parrotfish fisheries.

The Caribbean is home to 9 percent of the world’s coral reefs, which have been increasingly affected in recent years by a devastating cocktail of factors, including climate change, overfishing and pollution. As a result, coral cover in the Caribbean has decreased by over 80 percent, a statistic that is likely to worsen as the symptoms of climate change continue to plague the region. Coral bleaching as a result of rising sea temperatures is a particular concern, and study co-author Peter Mumby warns that the future of Caribbean reefs depends on how well they are able to recover from bleaching events.

Recovery is possible if new corals are allowed to repopulate and grow on the skeletons of the bleached reef. However, these fragile new structures must compete with algae, which often suffocates the new coral and prevents any further growth. The reefscape becomes barren and lifeless. Herbivorous fish like the parrotfish provide a solution to this problem, acting as crucial gardeners for the reef by removing algae and giving new corals the chance to grow. 

Limiting Parrotfish Catch

In the Caribbean, parrotfish are a key herbivorous species, spending up to 90 percent of their day feeding on algae. However, they are specifically targeted by local fisheries, and as their numbers decline, so too the Caribbean reefs become less likely to survive an increasingly uncertain future. For Mumby and his fellow researchers, the goal was therefore to find out how many parrotfish can be removed from an ecosystem before it is negatively affected in order to ascertain what regulations could ensure that parrotfish fisheries remain sustainable.

To do this, the team developed a model capable of predicting how different fishing regulations could affect parrotfish populations and, in turn, what the knock-on effect for the reefs would be. The scientists tested the accuracy of their model against known case-studies, in which altered fishing regulations triggered a dramatic change in regional fish populations and reef health. As a result of their findings, the team recommends a minimum size restriction of 12 inches (30 cm), as well as limiting total catch to 10 percent of the mass of the Caribbean parrotfish population.

Several Caribbean countries, including Belize, Bonaire and Turks & Caicos, have already banned parrotfish fishing. These countries are home to some of the healthiest reefs in the region, illustrating the positive impact that these suggested fishing regulations could have. According to Mumby, it would be in the best interest of local fishermen to adhere to the regulations if they are implemented, as “the more we do to maintain healthy coral reefs, the more likely it is that fishers’ livelihoods will be sustained into the future.” Failure could see a threefold reduction in future catches.

While the current model is tailored specifically to Caribbean reefs, it could be manipulated to help other areas on a case-by-case basis. In particular, Mumby hopes that it could prove relevant for Australia’s beleaguered Great Barrier Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site currently in the middle of a major coral bleaching crisis.

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Japan Resumes Whaling Despite Protests

Tuesday, April 5th, 2016

Even worse than the news that Japan has resumed its controversial whaling efforts, more than 200 of the minkes that were killed last week were pregnant females. The 2015/2016 season marks Japan’s reappearance on the international whaling scene, despite a ban issued by the International Court of Justice in 2014.

In theory, whaling for commercial purposes has been illegal since 1986, when the International Whaling Commission issued a moratorium to allow whale populations, decimated by the industry, to recover. However, some countries, including Norway and Iceland, continued to hunt whales under an objection to the moratorium, while Japan exploited a loophole in the law that allowed for a certain quota of whales to be killed each year in the name of “scientific research.”

According to Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Japan has killed more than 13,000 whales since 1986, allegedly for research purposes. Despite this, the country has published just two peer-reviewed articles detailing the results of their research since 2005, while the meat from the dead whales is sold commercially to restaurants and supermarkets. Elsewhere in the world, cetacean scientists without an ulterior motive for killing whales have proved that lethal methods are not required in order to carry out research.

In light of this, Australia bought a case to the International Court of Justice in 2010, claiming that there is no scientific justification for Japan’s whaling activities. In 2014, the court ruled in favor of Australia’s claim, and Japan’s scientific research program was banned with immediate effect. The Japanese adhered to the ruling at first, and no whaling ships were sent to the Antarctic during the 2014/2015 season. Instead, the Japanese sent a scouting expedition, whose findings were used to create a revised research program.

Japan Resumes Whaling Despite Protests

The Japanese submitted the new program to the International Whaling Commission in April 2015. The commission failed to determine whether or not the program was scientifically justifiable, and the Japanese committed to resuming their whaling efforts with or without approval. The revised plan reduced total hunting quotas from 900 whales to 333 whales per year, and promised to cease targeting humpback and fin whales. Instead, the quota focused solely on minke whales, with a total catch quota of 3,996 whales over the next 12 years.

For minke whales, the revised program means very little, as the total minke catch of previous years typically amounted to between 200 and 400 whales. Under the new program, however, the Japanese intend to specifically target female whales in order to ascertain the age at which female minkes reach sexual maturity. Because whaling season coincides with the whales’ annual breeding season, 90 percent of the female whales killed this year were pregnant with the species’ future generation.

The Japanese Fisheries Agency sees no problem with this, commenting that “the number of pregnant females is consistent with previous hunts, indicating that the breeding situation of minke whales in the Antarctic is healthy.” While it is true that minke whales are the most common baleen whale and not currently considered to be at risk, the International Whaling Commission states that “there has been an appreciable decline in their estimated abundance.”

Presumably, news like this means that the continued targeting of pregnant females will only accelerate the species’ depletion.

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