June 28, 2018

Santa Marta Reef Check 2018 Expedition Brings Together Colombian Divers

Submitted by Angela Alegría Ortega, Corales de Paz

For a second consecutive year, Corales de Paz organized a participatory monitoring of Colombia's coral reefs. The Santa Marta Reef Check 2018 expedition brought together 30 recreational divers from all over the country to evaluate the ecology of the reefs in the Santa Marta Bay and the National Natural Tayrona Park (NNTP). Held again at the El Rodadero Hotel, the event presented the Reef Check EcoDiver program to 20 recreational divers, including an official from the NNTP, a technician from the Rodadero Aquarium, a volunteer diver from the Calipso Foundation and two professional divers from El Rodadero Diving Center. In doing so, Corales de Paz continues to build capacity to complement local and national programs that track coral reef health in Santa Marta.

The event was made possible thanks to the collaboration and participation of national research biologists from the NNTP, the SeaFlower Foundation, the environmental bureau of San Andrés Island (Coralina), the Rodadero Aquarium, the Calipso Foundation, and Corales de Paz as Scientific Leaders of the Reef Check survey teams. Their commitment to teaching survey skills and their expertise in reef ecology made it possible to collect information on coral health from five dive sites, three of which had already been monitored during the 2017 expedition. The immediate result is updated information on the reef dynamics occurring in this region.

In addition to the training of recreational divers in the Reef Check protocol, the atypical presence of Sargasso (Sargassum spp) forests could also be assessed. This is a temporary condition that has been reported elsewhere in the western Atlantic, normal in Santa Marta in the first months of the year, but in 2018 has had a prolonged presence atypical for the southern Caribbean. This seaweed is transported by marine currents that come from South America to the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, but since 2015 a change in its season has been reported. According to researchers at the University of Galveston (Texas), a change in marine currents due to an increase in sea temperatures in 2015-2016 affected the distribution of Sargassum by sending it in large quantities to the Caribbean coasts.

Another preliminary result of this citizen science expedition is the recording of a low prevalence (<10% of the population surveyed) of white plague in the evaluated sites. This coral disease is causing great coral mortality in the reefs of Florida and the most recent records suggest that it is spreading south, raising alarm in Caribbean countries. The data collected on coral diseases as part of this Reef Check serves as an updated reference point for reef managers and scientists following the progress of white plague in the Caribbean and Colombia.

For this expedition we were able to receive support from the National Learning Service (SENA in Spanish) who was evaluating the quality of the program and certifying the participants with a certificate in technical competencies in participatory reef health evaluation. We also received the endorsement of other entities such as Biozean, Colombina, El Rodadero Hotel, Rodadero Dive Center, Rodadero Aquarium, SeaFlower Foundation, NNTP, Conservation International, The Colombian Federation of Underwater Activities (FEDECAS), the Global Confederation of Underwater Activities (CMAS), among others, whose support were pivotal to achieve the objectives of the event.

The goal of Corales de Paz for its participatory coral reef monitoring program is to serve as an early warning system for the health condition of Colombia's Caribbean coral reefs. We hope that recreational divers, who frequent the coral reefs, help in providing information to the environmental authorities so that when needed, they can implement actions to control possible threats to our coral reefs. The confirmation of the atypical presence of Sargassum and the estimation of a low prevalence of white plague are two examples that demonstrate the contribution that the Reef Check program and its EcoDivers can make to the study of coral reef dynamics. The event held in Santa Marta was very well received and the participants expressed great interest in continuing in the near future supporting coral reef monitoring, which encourages us to continue with this work in favor of the conservation and rehabilitation of coral reefs in Colombia.