Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Seeking the pulse of Antillean coral reefs

Seeking the Pulse of Antillean Coral Reefs

The journey:

Technology shrinks our world.  We chat with folks electronically all over our planet without giving it a second thought.  We can fly almost anywhere in a day.  Our concerns are less on how we get somewhere than how we deal with the jet-lag of having jumped a dozen time zones.  Mine is a slow journey sailing to and through the eastern Caribbean to study remote and hard to get to coral reefs there.  This is my attempt to explain it to you.

 Alaria the 34' cutter rigged sloop before being converted to a research vessel

The impetus:

Sailing to the Caribbean means travelling at walking speed but without the comfort of terra firma.  It is a slow, bumpy and uncertain road -– so why do it?  There are several answers.  First, this is a science project that needs to be done.  In May 2012 a meeting of leading coral reef scientists reported on trends in the health of Caribbean coral reefs over the past 40 years.  It was clear that coral reefs have changed profoundly in many areas but the stories of why they changed are complicated.  I was amazed to realize that no one reported on reefs of the eastern Caribbean.  That was not because there are no reefs (historically some of the best reefs are found there), but because there are no marine laboratories in the region.  Second, trying to assess stresses on reefs that cause them to decline becomes complicated when polluting countries are up-stream of the reef you are studying. It occurred to me that the trade-winds and ocean currents make each island biologically isolated from adjacent islands.  Whereas regional climate effects on reefs would be wide-spread, the differences among reefs of islands likely relate to how land and reef ecosystems have been managed locally.  Thus the eastern Caribbean is the best place to study the causes of reef decline and opportunities to improve their management. It seemed to me that to address this problem, I needed a way to study a number of independent coral reefs in the Antillean archipelago to see if I can determine trends that relate to how different islands (and countries) manage their coral reefs.

The type of research needed to be done on eastern Caribbean reefs is similar to work I’ve been conducting elsewhere for decades.  It is low-tech, can be done with little or no laboratory space and can be applied rapidly at each study reef.  However, making it work from a small sailboat, created the most logistically complex project of my life.  I need to get my sailboat Alaria  down to the Caribbean and ready to conduct reef research.  For this I need to outfit it for tropical research and I need  a “long-haul” crew to sail with me from Maine to the Caribbean.  I will also need a dive buddy and help conducting this research.  Believe me, the number of folks who would volunteer to help me in my research is huge but I want someone who is good with reef fish and will advance his or her career goals by joining me on this trip.   Specifically, I want to find a student who can do quantitative surveys of reef fish as I do all other reef creatures from corals to the animals and plants with which they live. 

Painting the hull

Tuning the engine

Preparing Alaria's hull, engine and launching  

The sailboat Alaria is a 34’ cutter-rigged Pacific Seacraft.  It required a year of preparation getting the engine overhauled, rigging on the boat replaced, new electronics and a compressor for scuba diving had to be installed.  I discussed the possibility of sailing to the Caribbean with lots of folks I know.  I asked colleagues in the field of coral reef research to suggest students who would profit from this research opportunity.  Somehow, all the pieces fell together and we shoved off for the Caribbean 2 October 2013.

Launching Alaria
 Alaria ready to go with wind generator, bimini top, solar panel, self steering mechanism

 Last night in Maine
Three of the intrepid crew (Paul Calder, Ansley Sawyer and Bob Steneck) right to left.

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