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Marine Conservation

Grand Bahama's dive sites depend on it

Originally published WELCOME BAHAMAS - GRAND BAHAMA - 2005 © Etienne Dupuch Jr Publications Ltd

Intricate coral reefs, colourful marine life and the clearest warm turquoise waters continue to attract diving enthusiasts from around the world to The Bahamas. However, without the efforts of marine conservation, visitors expecting to encounter an enchanting, healthy, underwater world may find something entirely different.

What lies beneath

According to BREEF (The Bahamas Reef Environment Educational Foundation), reefs cover 0.2 per cent of the world's oceans, but they house approximately a third of all marine fish species and thousands of other ocean-dwelling species.

The third largest barrier reef in the world is located in The Bahamas, at Andros, and plays a major role in the overall ecosystem of the Bahama islands. Coral reefs accommodate species such as snapper and grouper, two staples of the Bahamian diet. Reefs are also key in protecting the islands from hurricane damage as they break the wave energy from storms.

BREEF, a private, not-for-profit, Bahamian company, was registered in 1994 to promote marine conservation in The Bahamas through research, education and management. While the foundation is at the forefront of the battle to keep the marine ecosystem healthy, it is not alone.

Look, but don't touch

As diving and boating are two of the most popular activities in The Bahamas, dive operators in Grand Bahama recognize that they have an important responsibility when it comes to marine conservation.

Ian (Woody) Woodcock, diving instructor/guide with Xanadu Undersea Adventures, explains that educating divers on proper diving techniques is essential in preventing unnecessary damage to the reefs and disturbance to marine life.

" Every diver and snorkeller gets a full briefing," he says. "Essentially they're told 'don't touch anything underwater.'"

Woodcock notes that briefings are held not only to make divers aware of the marine environment but to protect themselves as well.

Coral is sharp and can sting, says Woodcock, and divers can get injured if they are not cautious.

There are also laws governing underwater behaviour. According to The Bahamas Department of Fisheries, extracting corals and the use of scuba gear in the capture of any marine product or resource is prohibited.

In addition to educating divers on the dos and don'ts of diving, Woodcock notes that boaters, as well, should be mindful of the reefs.

" We use permanent moorings so we don't have to use anchors at the dive sites," he says. "There is an enormous problem with boats anchoring on reefs."

Don Churchill, chief operating officer at UNEXSO, agrees that moorings play a major role in marine conservation.

" Our biggest thing right now is the mooring programme," he says. "We've been maintaining moorings for the past 20 years. We don't want people putting anchors on reefs? a little piece of coral can take hundreds of years to grow back."

What's at stake

Although there's a lot to think about before taking the plunge, diving doesn't have to be a daunting experience. Novice and experienced divers alike marvel at the beauty of the reef, wreck and speciality dives surrounding Grand Bahama.

Both Xanadu and UNEXSO offer tours of Ben's Cavern at Lucayan National Park, which Woodcock says is especially awe-inspiring.

" (Ben's Cavern) is a huge cave system under the island," he explains, but only certified cave divers may explore it.

Although the caves are not teeming with reef fish and other marine life, divers are greeted by a spectacular cathedral-like display of stalactites and stalagmites.

Divers must be extra careful when cave diving, due to the delicate environment, explains Woodcock.

" Divers have to maintain buoyancy control; it's very important," he says. "There are (formations) that have been there for about 30,000 years. If one diver makes a mistake and breaks a stalactite, that's it."

Churchill explains that divers have to have an understanding of how important it is to be respectful of the environment, especially when venturing into sites like Ben's Cavern.

" Something like bubbles from a diver can be enough to disturb the silt," he says. "You don't want to be touching anything."

Picturesque sites

For those who would rather experience colourful reefs, turtles, sharks and a multitude of different fish species, there are plenty of other dive sites to explore.

Woodcock says that among the most popular sites are Theo's Wreck, a 228-ft cement hauler that was sunk in 1982; the Sea Star II, a 180-ft freighter that sits in about 90 ft of water and is home to many species of fish and plant life; and Shark Alley, where divers can watch instructors hand feed Caribbean reef sharks. This site is also home to angelfish, grouper, jacks, hogfish and a large green moray eel.


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