Friday, November 6, 2009

Alacranes Blog 1

It’s hard to imagine a place so beautiful and so bountiful can in reality be suffering
At first glance the reef is swarming with life but with a closer look, there is a lot missing. The swarms we see at first are missing some key species. Unlike the meats we eat that come from land, most of the fish we consume are predators. Think about it when you drop a line into the water in hopes of catching dinner you don’t bait your hook with algae or coral, you bait it with fish. The predators are missing I’ve yet to see a shark. Snapper are around but most of them are small specimens. I’ve seen but a few small grouper. This is the largest reef system in the Gulf of Mexico; it should be central breeding ground for these important species, yet they are either absent or very small. The reasons are obvious, fishing boats dot the horizon tourist season brings crowds of 500 or more people to the island at a time and all the while the reef struggles to maintain its ecosystem. On other photographic expeditions I have visited places that are better protected and places that are quite a bit more remote. The feeling that I’ve always had on those trips is that I was in a place where the scales were precariously balanced even leaning slightly more towards catastrophe. I’ve always fought for these places to maintain their ecosystems that are so vital to the entire oceans health. In the Alacranes we are seeing what happens when those scales are tipped drastically, there is little to no protection. It’s beautiful out here, and it’s not too far gone that it can’t be brought back. Without action now, this place will soon become an ocean desert, and there will be no choice but to stop fishing here because there will be nothing left.

Alacranes Blog 2

We went in search of tiger sharks today. My guide, Ascan, said that he knew of a spot in deep water where they can be seen, so we spent about an hour motoring along the coral until we reached a channel that took us out to the open ocean on the far end of the reef. We dropped anchor in deep blue water. For the first time we were diving in a place too deep to see the bottom.
I was disappointed, I didn’t get to see or photograph any tiger sharks today but we did see a few of the largest grouper I have ever encountered as well as a lobster at least double the size of anything I’d ever seen before. As a kid growing up in Bermuda I can remember my dad donating a lobster to the aquarium that he caught because it was too big to fit in the oven. This monster I saw today was even bigger, big enough that it shared a cave with two grouper that easily weighed in at over 100 pounds. All of these giants were in 165ft of water, the deepest I will probably do on this trip.
It’s a well know fact that these oceanic species that humans have been consuming since we learned how to fish have been getting smaller and smaller in recent times. They cannot live long enough to grow to their full potential before being caught. It is at their full size that they can produce greater numbers of offspring as well, so we humans really don’t seem to be thinking this out too well.
On side note I also saw the largest moray eel I’ve seen, well . . .that I’ve ever seen, on a shallower dive later in the day. He wasn’t too interested in coming out for a photo but judging from what I saw I can say it was well over 10 feet long. Today marked the half-way point of my stay on Alacranes reef. It was a day to see giants. Tomorrow, I go to another even more remote island to do more research for Island Conservation on the invasive plant species that have made it out here.

Alacranes Blog 3

Did you know that there is a link between sea birds and coral reefs? I didn’t know that until just before came on this photographic expedition. A friend of mine at UCSC put it plainly. Bird droppings, are a fertilizer for coral. I’d never put these things together, and always sort of looked at birds as takers, not givers in the ecological cycle of the ocean.
So, instead of just taking other peoples word for it, I did a little bit observing while I was on Alacranes. I dove well over a dozen different locations on the reef. Some of the dives were greatly separated from the islands which hold colonies of nesting gannets and frigate birds, and other dives where just down current from these islands.

The evidence startled me to say the least. It is hard to isolate the corals that are bleaching from rising ocean temperature, toxic pollutants from boats, or just plain human impact from fishermen and tourists alike. There was however an obvious vitality to the reefs that were just down current from the islands. They thrived, the coral suffered less bleaching, the fish were more numerous, and things seemed to be balanced.

Before I came to Alacranes I got in touch with Island Conservation, a group out of Santa Cruz, California. I offered to do a little bit of reconnaissance for them, as they are expanding their conservation efforts to include the gulf, and the Caribbean.

We know that sea birds are suffering, and that their numbers along with everything else are in decline. One of the problems is the invasive species, that - no surprise - humans have introduced, mostly without even knowing we’d done it. On an island that had few natural predators for these birds since they first came here, suddenly, rats have shown up, and are eating the eggs and the young birds that not too long ago had nothing to worry about.

So far, the problem isn’t completely out of hand here. The birds don’t nest year round, and the rats don’t have much to survive on when the birds aren’t nesting, save the trash left behind by tourists, and leftovers dumped out by the park rangers. So for now, the birds are okay. None the less, it is a problem that we will need to address at some point.

Alacranes Blog 4

I’m sitting on the edge of an Island, watching the sun set over the ocean. The only thing that gives pause to the feeling that I’m completely alone out here is a distant lighthouse, on an Island that is itself far from any real sort of “civilization.” I’m alone as I watch the colors reflect in the perfectly formed little waves as they run up white sand forming perfect little barrels for imaginary miniature surfers. Sunsets will happen until the end of the world. Until the earth ceases to orbit the sun. Long after we have exhausted all of the oceans resources, the colors will still be there, but will they still hold the same power over us?

Looking out over the ocean, we see the unknown. We see a vastness. The inky black depths that hide unknown sea creatures, all implied by the deep ocean swells rolling across the horizon. We see a world that we know very little about, and fear.

It is because of that fear, that we’ve managed to ignore the fact that we’ve all but eliminated the creatures that live there. Most of us are not seeing this decline on a daily basis, so we find it hard to imagine, and since we don’t really understand the implications of a dead ocean, we don’t fear the consequences.

Phytoplankton, the microscopic plants that bloom in the ocean produce between 50-90 percent of the earths oxygen. All life on earth depends on oxygen at some point in it’s lifecycle. An ocean without phytoplankton is a world without sufficient oxygen.

It is only a matter of time until we have no choice but to make an effort to “save the ocean.” That effort will be born out of fear for ourselves, and not compassion for the creatures that live there.

Think for a moment, about what this planet would be like without humans. The sun would still set, with all of the same glory that it carries with it now. The plains of North America would be running rampant with vast herds of buffalo. Elephants would not be on the verge of extinction. In fact, all of the animals that suffered extinction at the hand of humanity would still be flourishing in the wild.

Imagine the ocean though, what would the ocean look like without human influence. It’s hard for us to imagine what that might look like, because most of us have never seen anything close to the natural state of things.

As perfect as this world would be, there would be nobody there to appreciate it. Who would sit and watch the sun set, and ponder the vast depths, and the magnificent creatures that lie just beyond the scope of our imagination? In the not to distant future when we look out over a dead ocean and watch a beautiful sunset we will be looking at a monument to our own greed, and our inability to change our course.