Reef check

Reef CheckThere is an emerging trend with a new kind of tourist coming to the BVI. This is the tourist who comes not only to soak up the beauty of the land and sea in these emerald isles of the Caribbean, but one who also has an eco-awareness. This is a sensibility that says, "no man is an island unto himself," and therefore what each of us does ultimately affects another. When these tourists go on vacation, they do not leave their "green mind set" at the baggage claim counter at the airport. Rather these are the folks who want to make a positive environmental difference wherever they travel. For those who love to dive, there is now an opportunity to do more than just explore the reefs of the BVI.

In May each year, BVI dive operators, charter boat captains, and volunteer divers get together to participate in the annual Reef Check. In the BVI, Reef Check is under the leadership of Trish Bailey, whose day job includes captaining the luxury 50-foot Beneteau Serendipity. Data gathered from these reef check outings have been submitted to Reef Check International headquarters in Los Angeles since 1997. "The Marine Industry here has been so cooperative, Trish emphasizes, "not only do we get volunteers from area dive shops to do the actual dives, but boats and equipment are loaned as well." And some of the volunteers also include tourists on vacation, who want to combine their love of diving with participating in a program that monitors the health of the reef ecosystem.

Two of these eco-minded divers are British transplants to New York, Mark and Carole Morrissey, owners of Serendipity, who have planned their annual vacation to the BVI for the last seven years to coincide with Reef Check. "They are dedicated folks and very helpful to our program," Trish adds. What is new this year is the implementation of Reef Check's EcoAction Program. Dive shops in the BVI now have certified Reef Check Instructors, who can educate and certify divers who want to take part in protecting reef ecosystems. These programs are available for both youth and adult divers.

Reef Check is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting and rehabilitating reefs worldwide. Founded in 1996 by marine ecologist Dr. Gregor Hodgson, there is now a global network of teams spanning some 80 countries. In 1997 Reef Check conducted the first global survey of coral reef health. The results were a "wake up call" to the scientific community. The report from the data gathered showed that there was no reef in the world that remained untouched by human impact in such areas as over fishing, pollution and even climate change.

Reef LobsterTrish and her team of volunteers have seen the impact to the BVI reef system over the more than decade they have been gathering information. "For the last four years I have taken my camera with me to document the changes," Trish explains. "These images are transferred to a special waterproof paper, so I can take the photos with me under the water and find the exact head of elk horn corall at the same location, that I have been monitoring for years. In some cases we see damage and bleaching, but in other cases we can see re-growth, which is hopeful."

Although professional in what they do, the Reef Check volunteer group has a lot of fun and you won't find any stern-minded scientific types on these outings. There is laughter and banter amongst the team members as they coordinate the tasks needed; clipboards and charts are assembled and dive equipment is readied. On board prep work for the reef check takes a good deal of the time in the seven-hour days that begin at 8am and end at 3pm. The teams monitor the same locations each year: Diamond Reef off Camanoe Island, Bronco Billy west of George Dog, Spy Glass off Norman Island and the reefs surrounding Pelican Island.

Each team of two divers knows their specific responsibilities when approaching a site. They start with laying an underwater transect looking for the markers left from the years before. Photography has greatly helped this process, by serving as an underwater map pinpointing a piece of rebar – a marker that may be partially hidden under a coral head this year. The transect runs 100 metres in length in a straight line. There are two lines at each reef check point – one at three metres depth and another at ten. These lines are marked off into sections and each team takes various readings along the substrate (sea bottom) counting fish, measuring coral and noting changes.

The trick of course is getting an accurate count from the list of indicator species listed on the divers' charts. A sea egg may stay perched on a coral ledge, easy to add to the four plus slash numbering system, but schools of fish don't stay at their desks for long. So each movement in a counting area must include a time of stillness (15 minutes) for Nemo and his pals to reappear. The work can be painstaking but there are always those underwater rewards. A spotted moray eel may poke his head out from a rock opening, a green turtle may swim up from her feast on the sea grass bed, or a startled octopus may jet away under a smoke screen of ink.

Reef check"After all our data is submitted, we eventually receive a report," Trish explains. The BVI comes under what is called a broad scale assessment, which groups islands together, in this case Puerto Rico, the USVI and neighboring islands. This report allows Reef Check coordinators to monitor the health of the reef ecosystem. What makes the new EcoAction Dive program exciting is that now more visiting divers will get a chance to get certified, increasing the number of qualified reef checkers. You might call this an educational, underwater "neighborhood watch" program.

In any case, whether this benefits the divers, who come away more educated about the reef ecosystem, or the fish and corals who have a team of big brothers and sisters watching out for them – the BVI Reef Check crew are happy to welcome everyone aboard. For more information about Reef Check go to reefcheck.org.