Saving Dominica's corals
Dr Lou Luddington is a marine biologist, nature photographer and writer living aboard a sailboat, Noctiluca, on the move and exploring marine protected areas.
It is seven in the morning and we’re waiting at the roadside in Roseau, Dominica poised to flag down a bus, Caribbean-style. Our sailing boat is moored in the bay, one of only two permitted anchorages on the whole island due to Covid restrictions. We’ve come ashore to head to Soufriere a few miles down the coast for another day of exciting diving.
To get there we hop on a local bus for a few dollars, an unmarked minivan driven hard and fast and ushered along by loud reggae. The driver turns it up a notch when he hears the intro to a song he likes and we blast along the road, our view a blurry mix of buildings, people, trees and the ocean flashing past on our right. We stop to pick up passengers from outside their doors, deliver a parcel on a short detour and finally arrive at Nature Island Dive as the day is rousing in the tiny ocean-side village of Soufriere.
Colourful buildings pop against a forested backdrop, overlooking the arc of the bay that encompasses the Soufriere-Scotts Head Marine Reserve. Steep, vegetated cliffs on the right lead to the sweep of the road along the water’s edge to a causeway and Scotts Head at its furthest reach.The bay is one half of an ancient volcanic caldera creating spectacular underwater scenery of vertical walls and drop-offs that fade to the gloom, hundreds of metres deep.
These deep clear waters are rich with marine life and a draw for divers of all disciplines and the reason we chose Dominica as our first landfall after crossing the Atlantic. The dive centre is a homely hub for divers, a few steps from the ocean and the gateway to a dazzling selection of dive sites and a world-class freediving platform run by Blue Element; it’s a pretty idyllic setup.
Today I‘ve arranged to dive with Simon Walsh, operations manager of Nature Island Dive for a tour of the corals they are monitoring. Whilst the human world has been battling Covid-19, the corals of Dominica have been set upon by a deadly sea borne virus. Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD), is a lethal disease that afflicts more than 22 species, including some of the most iconic and important reef building corals of the tropical Atlantic. Following the brutal sweep of SCTLD across other parts of the Caribbean the first recorded case in Soufriere-Scotts Head Marine Reserve was picked up by Simon and his team in 2021.
With advice from coral experts they began monitoring and successfully treating infected colonies with an ointment developed by a team of scientists at Ocean Alchemists in Florida. This CoralCure Ointment Base2B mixed with amoxicillin trihydrate has been used to treat SCTLD throughout Florida with an 85% success rate. Pasted on at the line of infection, the ointment adheres to the coral, slowly releasing the amoxicillin into the tissues over a period of three days.
When Simon first consulted with scientists they warned him, “Pick your friends, your most cherished corals to treat as you won’t save them all.” Left untreated the infection usually kills the corals within weeks or months. Yet with swift and direct action Simon and his team have saved the lives of multiple coral colonies, “If you wait a week it’s gone, you have to act fast.”
Treating the corals intensively, colony by colony is succeeding. “We’ve saved multiple colonies without a doubt,” he says. When I ask him to put a number on it he tells me they have treated around 20 colonies. One colony they knew had the disease was lost as they were too busy with clients to save it. As much as it pains them to lose corals to disease, sometimes business has to take precedence; currently their coral monitoring work receives no funding, this is citizen science at its most dedicated and they are saving the reef one coral at a time.
In September 2017, category 5 hurricane Maria ravaged the island, razing more than 90 percent of built structures, brutalising the forests and battering the coral reef. Testament to its ferocity, more than four years later the effects still scar the surrounding area and rouse emotion in those that lived through it; roofless houses, derelict buildings, piles of debris along roadsides are reminders that this is a country in remission.
The devastation of Maria and impact of Covid-19 left the marine reserve without funds for management in recent years. With the blessing and support of the Dominican fisheries department Nature Island Divers have become unofficial caretakers of the reserve, monitoring overall coral health including bleaching, SCTLD and other diseases, removing litter, maintaining boat moorings and culling invasive lionfish throughout the reserve.
As Simon guides me through gardens of sea fans, along cliff edges bristling with sponges and over ancient coral towers, pointing out tagged individuals and enthusing through hand gestures at the plethora of species, I am heartened to see for myself a healthy and thriving ecosystem.
Simon and his team are the unsung heroes of Soufriere’s coral reefs and they are hoping to be a shining example of where treating SCTLD can be a resounding success. Lower levels of pollution, run-off and sedimentation, deeper water and cooler average water temperatures than other parts of the Caribbean mean less stress on the corals, boosting their ability to fight diseases. With Nature Island Dive as guardians and reserve staff about to be reinstated, this magical corner of the eastern Caribbean has every chance of staying that way.
This feature appears in ISSUE 24: Rainbows of mud of Oceanographic Magazine
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