Sunday, 27 July 2014

Taking stock and taking off for home

St. Croix sunset.

Knowing we were about to leave St. Croix (and the Caribbean), we had an intense sprint to finish all of our research.  In our last month we conducted our standard coral reef and fish assessment surveys, measured grazing visually, with small “GoPro” video cameras and with bits of seagrass that we measured being munched.  We studied patch reefs, fore reefs and along depth gradients.  We quantified reef components around all of my long-term study areas and measured light intensities in the water in front of all of our study sites. 

Chancey lowers light sensor from the Zodiac, Doug reads the integrated light measurements on Alaria.

Our research team turned over during this final month.  We began our research in St. Croix with Dr. Peter Mumby and Ms. Natalia Rincon-Diaz joining Chancey Macdonald and me, when they left they were replaced by Dr. Doug Rasher (reef ecologists who focuses on plant-herbivore interactions) and David Conover who heads Compass Light Productions specializing on video documentaries about marine conservation.

St. Croix science team (Peter Mumby, Bob Steneck, Chancey Macdonald, Natalia Rincon Diaz - right to left).
Last team including David Conover and Doug Rasher (left and 3rd from left).
The waves of new people kicked us into high gear with some of our dive teams having as many as eight dives in a day (all shallow).  After they all departed and it was time to prepare Alaria for the long sail home.  I removed all of the research gear including donating the very functional compressor to the East End Marine Park who desperately needed one.  All of the sailing and cruising equipment had to be inspected and readied for our passage.
Jose Sanchez accepts our compressor as a donation to the St. Croix East End Marine Park. 


I set out to study the coral reefs of the eastern Caribbean because they represented a conspicuously understudied region in the Caribbean.  By focusing primarily on low islands, I hoped to minimize pollution and sedimentation effects attributable to runoff.  Since these eastern most islands will not likely have significant upstream pollution.  It is equally unlikely that adjacent islands affect would one another because of the strong equatorial current running between isolates virtually each island.  We assume that climate and atmospheric effects such as ocean warming or acidification would affect reefs equally.  What we wanted to determine was whether reefs displayed different conditions of “health” and if so, what conditions most contribute to healthier coral reefs?

All study sites, number of transects and quantity of data generated throughout the eastern Caribbean.
We studied coral reefs on 15 islands along the eastern Caribbean archipelago over an 8-month period.  Live coral cover averaged about 20 percent ranging from 0 to 66%.  Some of the sites with higher coral cover were protected from fishing but that pattern is not necessarily cause and effect since sites with higher coral cover could have been selected for protection (e.g. Soufriere Marine Management Area in St. Lucia).  It is clear that seaweed is bad for coral reefs.  Where seaweed was abundant, adult and juvenile corals abundance were less abundant.  Harmful seaweed was usually less abundant where Diadema sea urchins and/or herbivorous fish such as parrotfish and tangs were abundant.  In this case, the relationship IS likely cause and effect.  The herbivores that eat algae keep the coral reefs relatively algae-free.  We found the conditions ascribed to “healthy” coral reefs most commonly found on coral reefs with relatively little fishing pressure.
Seaweed covered reef with little live coral and poor habitat architecture.
Reef with little seaweed, abundant coral, herbivorous tangs and considerable habitat for fish and other reef-dwellers.

The sea urchin, Diadema, does well in fished areas.  This may be because fish that eat it are heavily fished in many areas of the Caribbean.  So reefs with sea urchins and considerable fishing can do well as can reefs that are not fished at all but have large and abundant parrotfish.  Trouble is that most reefs fall between those two extremes.
Reef well grazed by Diadema sea urchins (very little seaweed).

Possibly more interesting than the critters we found were the critters we didn’t find (or rarely found) on this odyssey.  Specifically, almost all large bodied fish were absent from most coral reefs.  We saw only a few large groupers and sharks.  Several large predatory fish that were common 40 years ago such as barracuda and some groupers are largely absent now.   Non-native (invasive) lionfish were surprisingly rare at most of our sites. We only saw a few during the entire project.

There is still much to do.  We have mountains of data to analyze on reef corals, seaweed, patch reefs, fish and sea urchin fauna as well as time trends for all of these factors for some sites .   David Conover is working on the footage he took to see what sort of public vehicle might be best for getting the word out.

Doug Rasher and David Conover work in Alaria on their data and video documentary, respectively.

Nevertheless, we can make some conclusions about the coral reefs of the eastern Caribbean.  Obviously, they have degraded over recent decades.  There is less live coral, fewer fish and water clarity has declined.  However, we also see seeds of hope in the abundant elkhorn coral that is springing up around St. Croix and elsewhere.

Relatively healthy elkhorn coral reef in St. Croix's Buck Island National Monument.
One of our last Caribbean sunsets before departing.

Our long-haul crew for the trip home included Dr. Ansley Sawyer (life long sailor and “Mr. Fixit”) who sailed with me on the way down, Dr. Lew Incze (oceanographer and professor at the University of Maine who’s summer job during college was to deliver sailboats from New York to Maine), Mr. Ed James who sails from Chesapeake Bay and has myriad long-haul cruises under his belt.

The "long-haul" sailors, Lew Incze, Ansley Sawyer, Ed James and me (right to left).                                                                  
After readying the boat, stocking it with food, fuel and water, we cleared customs and departed for parts north.
Departing the Caribbean.
Where to go?

If you draw a straight line from St. Croix to Maine it nearly goes through Bermuda, which is a bit over 900 miles away.  However, we were watching the weather and storm after storm swept over North America, and out to sea north of Bermuda.  Those storms are NOT something to mess with… they can be intense and we are a small boat.  We thought we could get to Bermuda easily enough but we weren’t sure we’d find the weather window we need to leave from there to Maine.  In fact we realized that we could be pinned down in Bermuda for weeks and none of us were excited about that possibility.  So, we set sail for Norfolk Virginia.  It would be over a 1300-mile run that would take us 13 days but once there, we’d have lots of options for working our way up the coast dodging storms along the way.
Our cruise track back to Maine (a circle marks noon of each day of our journey to Norfolk Va.)

Alaria holds 30 gallons of diesel fuel and we had an additional 20 gallons in carboys lashed to the rails.  This would give us about 4 days of motoring time – so clearly we had to sail most of the way.  We also were mindful of our water capacity.  We hold 70 gallons of freshwater in two 35-gallon tanks that we use sequentially.  We also have a 6-gallon “emergency” supply of freshwater lashed to the rail.  I’ve learned over the last 7 months that if we conserve, four people use about 5 gallons per day so we would have about 14 days of water for a journey that took us 13 days to complete.  Actually, we had a bit of luck regarding water.  On day 6 of our cruise we were hit with a downpour that allowed us to wash our deck and plug the drains (called “scuppers”) so water accumulated over the fill cap for water tank #2 (the one near the cockpit).  When I opened the water tank cap, water cascaded into the tank and in about 2 minutes the tank was full.  We had another 14-day supply, which we knew would be more than enough for this passage.

Lew flying our spinnaker.

During our long crossing, we had generally good weather except for a storm that packed winds over 40 knots.  This gale rattled the boat and rigging despite having two reefs in the main sail (making the sail shorter) and we were sailing only with the tiny staysail before the mast.  After a while we decided to “heave to” which amounts to setting the sails so the boat stalls where it is heading into the waves so we just go up and down under remarkably stable conditions.  We call that “parking the boat”….  Once done, we all went down below and rode it out until the winds were down to a manageable level.  We had very big seas and the wind was blowing the tops off the waves but I didn’t think to take a photo of that fury.

We arrived in Norfolk early on Saturday 10 May.  We went straight to a marina where we could take showers, buy provisions and get a few meals in restaurants.  After a solid day of cleaning and shopping we were ready to go and the weather looked good for an early Sunday departure for points north.

The weather remained unstable so we made passages close to shore and took the New York City – East River run to Long Island so we wouldn’t be trapped outside with no harbors of refuge.  We were now coastal-cruising…  so we could drop an anchor and wait out bad weather rather than struggling against it. 

Approaching New York City.

The new World Trade Center (left) and Brooklyn Bridge (right).

After waiting out a 20 knot blow that would put wind on our ‘nose’ heading down Long Island Sound, we began our final push to home.  We motor sailed directly to Onset Massachusetts where took on our last load of fuel and water while waiting waited for a favorable tide to push us through the Cape Cod Canal.  Along the way, we noticed that the main sail had developed a small tear along its outer edge.  Fortunately, the wind was now at our back so we sailed across the Gulf of Maine with only our Yankee fore sail pulling us home. 

Finally, all of the islands of Midcoast Maine such as Damariscove, Fishermen, and Outer Heron came into clear sight.  These are the islands I’ve worked around studying lobsters and sailed around on various boats over the past three plus decades. 

Sailing past Maine's Damariscove Island heading to South Bristol.

We motored through The Gut in South Bristol to Bittersweet Boatyard where our wives had assembled to greet us.  It was a terrific homecoming.  Maine’s verdant Spring looked wonderful.  It wasn't tropical at all.  It was home!

Alaria back at our point of departure on our mooring in South Bristol, Maine

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