I can’t stand it anymore. I have to come clean. I am a mass murderer. There, I said it! I didn’t mean to be. I was young — in the wrong place at the wrong time. But none of that mattered to my thousands of innocent victims — destroyed, dead, gone forever.
It was in 1976 in Belize, home to the second longest barrier reef in the world. I was too anxious to see my first coral reef after reading Clare Boothe Luce’s description: “What fishes like flowers! What spires and grottoes which dwarf in their age and beauty all the cities of man.”
So I came, I saw, I crushed. It wasn’t wanton destruction. I just didn’t think when I let slip that anchor. Nevertheless, the effect was akin to the carpet-bombing of Dresden. If I were to return to the scene of the crime today, lo these many decades later, it would look much the same, for it can take centuries if not millennia to heal such an atrocity.
I have since spent uncountable days in the water, exploring one of Earth’s most spectacular environments. I have read volumes regarding the formation of reefs, the amazing biodiversity they harbor, and the global threats they now encounter.
In the same vein as the Animals’ blues lyrics, “Mothers, tell your children, not to do what I have done,” I thought if I could share even a small amount of that marine miracle with my fellow cruisers it might give them cause for pause before they hit the down button on their windlass.
Our tropical reefs range from the equator to approximately 30 degrees north and south. Although they can grow in depths down to or deeper than 300 feet, the majority of hard corals, soft corals and sponges don’t thrive below 60 feet, coincidentally the maximum depth most sailors seek when anchoring.
There are three basic types of coral formation: fringing, barrier and atoll. They contain 25 percent of all known marine plant and animal species — 6,000 to 8,000 species of fish and 70,000 species of coral overall, from hard to soft. Coral is neither a stone nor a plant, but a colony of small animals building out from the calcified remains of their predecessors. The individual animal is called a polyp, which usually hides in its cubby during daylight hours only to emerge at night to filter the water for passing nutrients. Their shapes, colors and variety of patterns form a stunning palette. I think of them as the wildflowers of the sea, as many must, for reefs are so often referred to as coral gardens.
Because tropical reefs are found in 100 different countries, it’s difficult to form a cohesive plan for their preservation. For decades Caribbean fisherman poured chlorine bleach into the brain corals to drive out fish hiding within. Of course, the polyps couldn’t flee. Off the island of Bohol in the Philippines I swam over vast acreage of what looked like a rubble pit where once prolific life had prospered. The clever local fishermen had learned to improvise powerful underwater bombs from diesel and fertilizers. The technique works very well — once.
The last three decades have seen the destruction of 35 million acres of coral. But the threats don’t lie solely with local fisheries. Commercial shipping practices, uncontrolled tourism, toxic runoff, silting due to logging, warming water temperatures, ocean acidification and more severe tropical storms (believed to be fueled by global warming) are all taking their tragic toll.
So, what can we sailors do to mitigate our impact? First, step back and take a look at the big picture. If global warming and ocean acidification are ultimately the greatest threats, then we should assess our overall lifestyle and look for ways to minimize our carbon wake.
Next, time your movements through coral waters to ensure a high sun, preferably at your back. Spot ahead using the highest lookout station safely possible. Wear polarized sunglasses and learn to read the bottom by color. It seems too obvious to mention, but go slow. Unintentional grounding can do massive damage. It isn’t enough just to drop your anchor in a sandy patch. Consider the swinging arc of your anchor rode. Place your anchor by hand in the sand when possible to minimize drag. If you use rope rode with a chain lead, place a buoy at the joining swivel to lift one third of the chain off the bottom. If you use all chain, limit your scope to a safe minimum. Use your dinghy rather than the mother ship to get out to the reefs.
Don’t collect exotic and rare live shells, and limit your fishing to prolific and nonendangered species. Just as you would with ivory, do not support the black coral trade. Research in advance areas under protection, such as marine parks and reserves, and respect their regulations. As an industry, scuba diving has pioneered the environmental awareness and preservation of the coral reefs worldwide. Our people should get together with their people.
Cruising isn’t just about sailing. It’s a holistic experience that gives us the opportunity not only to enjoy passagemaking, but also to engage fascinating cultures and diverse environments. These colorful coral reefs, such an alluring part of our cruising fantasy, offer us nothing short of a magical mystery tour, and with our awareness and help, hopefully they will for generations to come.
• Move through coral-laden waters when the sun is high and at your back.
• Use the highest (and safest) lookout station possible.
• Wear polarized sunglasses.
• Read the bottom by color. Darker blue means deeper water.
• Go slow.
• Place your anchor by hand in the sand to minimize drag.
• Use your dinghy to get out to the reefs.
The Coral Kingdom
Learn about coral and see hundreds of images at this photo library of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: www.photolib.noaa.gov/reef/index.html#album
After an extensive refit, the crew of Roger Henry is ready for sea and new adventures. This article first appeared in the December 2013 issue of Cruising World.