Diver assesses Bahamas reefs after hurricane

Jan 17, 2020 by Guest Writer

Story and photos by Kevin Davidson

Some time has passed and our memories of Hurricane Dorian are perhaps fading away a bit. The scenes in the news of the damage and the leveling of some hamlets and villages have become a topic of the past, except for those still involved with rebuilding the communities.

Many have wondered about the state of the underwater environment that plays such a big part of tourism and infrastructure in the Bahamas. It would be easy to believe that the shallow, clear,  azure waters and reefs that draw people to this aquatic wonderland year-round would have been nearly destroyed.

I have worked as a scuba diver and made a living in the ocean for 30 years, largely in the Pacific and Micronesia on private yachts and in dive shops. I’m not a trained marine biologist, but in those years I have worked with many professionals and learned much through observations and comparisons. Hopefully, my humble yet informed opinion of the state of the reefs after Hurricane Dorian will provide promising news about the coral and marine life throughout the Abacos.

Hurricane Dorian, devastating as it was on land, was not as horrific below the ocean’s surface, although the coral and marine life did not escape completely unscathed.

I work aboard a 65-foot research vessel stationed in West Palm Beach, Florida. Angari Foundation, a nonprofit organization, offers services to scientists who need to perform offshore marine science projects, such as water sampling, shark tagging and, in this case, reef surveying. We provide R/V Angari to teachers, scientists, and filmmakers for minimal cost. We also work with the Perry Institute for Marine Science (PIMS), which has been studying marine ecosystems in the Bahamas for many years and has built a detailed database of these areas.

We were fortunate to have made a journey observing reefs surrounding the entire Grand Bahama and Great Abaco region in late June and early July 2019, so when the hurricane hit in September, PIMS quickly secured a permit to go back post-hurricane and observe the outcome on those same coral reefs.

It would have been pretty hard to see every inch of the reefs around the perimeter of the two islands, but our job was to stop every few miles for a survey of the same reefs observed before the storm with a crew of six, each doing a detailed work-up of coral growth and fish populations through transects, observations and the standardized practices used by coral reef scientists to maintain symmetrical data with other organizations.

My job, in addition to helping with vessel operations, was to take pictures of the team doing their jobs. I’ve been in the Abacos and Freeport at least four times and have kept an accurate log book of my findings.

Those who have been anywhere in the Bahamas know the reefs, in general, are not what they were many years ago. There are, however,  pockets of beauty still scattered throughout the area that I would be happy to take recreational divers to. The spur and groove system of reefs and coral heads will always exist, and I enjoy filming these swim-throughs and valleys.

I always look at the reef through a photographic and artistic perspective, but working alongside these marine biologists teaches me also to appreciate how the web of life and continuity must exist in order for the reef to survive. From death comes life, and all corals search for a chance to expand their territory. Survival of the fittest is the rule, even for the aquatic realm.

As we made our way from West End to Freeport toward East Grand Bahama, I took notice of the trees. Some appeared stripped of foliage, while others along the shoreline appeared normal, having survived destruction.

A small village close to the oil terminal appeared leveled. We did a dive nearby and noticed our first signs of damage to the reef. The spur and grooves of the coral have become home to trees, a large tire, bed springs, and a chair, among other items that now fill up the valleys of the ecosystem. Small schools of fish enjoyed their new home of protective bed springs.

Moving further south toward Castaway Cay and Sandy Point, things were looking up. Along the shore, the tree line appeared intact, and I was told that Sandy Point fared well during the storm. A couple of my favorite reefs were in very good shape. PIMS has established a small coral nursery of elkhorn and staghorn corals and, after a dive to untangle the lines used to suspend the coral, the growing station survived. These corals will be transferred to nearby reefs and outplanted. Three reefs we have surveyed in the past remained untouched and were still beautiful near the Sandy Point area.

Rounding the southern tip of Abaco, we made our way toward Marsh Harbour, which we all know was more or less ground zero, with some of the worst damage to homes. One of the first reefs we visited was very close to shore – as close to shore as I would be during the whole trip. Mermaid Reef sits in front of Mermaid Reef Villas, and I realized this was where most of the news footage was shot. I somewhat recognized the scenes on land. I was told Mermaid Reef, a small patch reef just a 2-minute swim from shore, should not even exist – the water is too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. Yet it thrived, until the arrival of Dorian.

Now we saw overturned coral and the most debris in one area. We found a lawn mower, folding ladder, big-screen TV, water tank, roofing pieces and more. Once again, I saw schools of fish making homes from these new obstructions. Mermaid Reef was in very bad shape, but all is not lost. We visited reefs inside and outside the barrier reef at Marsh Harbour, and I saw plenty of healthy coral. A regular dive and snorkel site called Sandy Cay still boasted some of the most fantastic gardens of elkhorn coral I have ever seen.

Heading across the northern edge of the barrier reef in a westerly direction, we visited reefs that may not have been seen by many divers because of the remote location and rough seas in the winter. We encountered a mix of mostly untouched coral, and in a couple of locations we observed coral bleaching. The consensus was that it may or may not have been due to the hurricane. There are many factors that can bring damage to the reef, so further study and observation must be done.

Other locations showed signs of a layer of thick mud coating parts of the reef in selective areas. This mud is perhaps due to the storm, as reefs located near small, shallow, natural channels that lead to the outer reef may allow a quicker flow of water and cause sediment from shallow waters to quickly flood the barrier reef, not giving enough time to naturally disperse the flow of sand and sediment.

One more stop along the northern edge was at a reef away from the main barrier reef. In my humble opinion, it is a really beautiful piece of underwater paradise with all the elements of the kind of dive the Bahamas has to offer: swim-throughs, healthy coral and clear water all in one location. How can you go wrong? To me, this particular dive means there is still exceptional diving and snorkeling to be found, so I keep the faith.

Our last stop was a trip across Little Bahama Bank, navigating out of a natural channel on the west side below Tiger Beach and arriving at a reef nearby. Because of its proximity to the channel, it had been covered by a silty mud from the bank, once again proving the theory that areas near channels leading to deeper water are prone to runoff.

Nobody can determine the exact strength of a storm as it passes through particular locations; a hurricane can be thought of as a series of isolated tornadoes, making the damage to the reef uncertain. The only way to know what happens is to be there when it happens, but I’m not sure there would be very many volunteers willing to monitor a reef system during a large storm.

Now, let’s keep something in mind: As bad as Hurricane Dorian was, there are many areas that were found in the aftermath to have fared well and that will recover. The absolute worst and strongest part of the storm laid waste to many of the resort communities, with Bakers Bay and Marsh Harbour considered to have been the most direct hit.

My general observation might be summed up as follows: Any reef close to shore and in the heaviest path of the storm would bear the worst damage – yet overall, these reefs are the minority. This is good news to visitors and those who make their living through the aquatic world that typifies the Bahamas.

After circumnavigating the perimeter of Grand Bahama and the Abacos, I am sure life will survive. We made a stop at Grand Bahama Yacht Club, and the guys there told me there remains a steady stream of boats bringing supplies. They are not forgotten.

Kevin Davidson is a photographer whose underwater images have been published in many books and publications. He worked in the yachting industry for the past 12 years on yachts including M/Y Bluestar and M/Y Qing. Comments are welcome below.