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Swan Islands Expedition With Dr. Sylvia Earle: Day Six (PHOTOS)

First Posted: 07/25/11 09:25 PM ET   Updated: 09/24/11 06:12 AM ET

From the Sylvia Earle Alliance:

For those Huffington Post Green readers who have been following the Mission Blue expedition to the Swan Islands and surrounding Mesoamerican reef, you know that the team has experienced a number of trials and triumphs in its documentation of the marine health of this critical "hope spot."

The expedition, led by Dr. Sylvia Earle, world-renowned oceanographer, National Geographic Explorer-In-Residence and 2009 TED Prize Winner, is part of a larger effort by the Sylvia Earle Alliance to garner public support for the establishment of a global network of marine protected areas (MPAs) - which Earle calls "hope spots." These are large areas of critical importance to the health of the ocean, the planet's "blue heart," that if protected, can save the ocean from destruction.

The expedition reached its final stages over the weekend, as the team turned its focus from the Swan Islands to the reefs off Roatan in Honduras. The crew, intimately familiar with these waters, led its divers to their next destination, Pirate's Point. A wall dive, Pirate's Point was dominated by gorgonians, black coral and large barrel sponges, providing divers with a good feel for the deeper reefs.
[Text continues below photos.]

All photos courtesy of Kip Evan Photography.

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A spiny headed blenny greets our expedition photographer Kip Evans.
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An important piece of reef conservation efforts in Honduras is a recent announcement made this year, formally declaring the Honduran waters a shark sanctuary. By making a strong stand against shark fishing, the Honduran government has paved the way for the recovery of sharks and the reefs they inhabit. Expedition team member Giacomo Palavicini of the Shark Legacy Project explains the importance of sites like Cara a Cara:

This is the only place in Roatan, and most likely in a lot of the Bay Islands, where you can still find Caribbean reef sharks in a healthy population of mature females. This group is important ecologically for the balance of the reef, as they make sure all the fish populations stay in balance. Many reefs around the world are experiencing an uptick of invasive species like the lionfish. However, we are seeing lower numbers of lionfish in sites where there are Caribbean reef sharks, like the Mesoamerican Reef, in comparison to sites without them.

With the Shark Legacy Project, we've tried to obtain a dollar value for live sharks so people can understand the value of this magnificent species. We've determined that these sharks are worth around $47,000.00 per shark per year. That is a lot of money for the community, and if a shark can live for 30-35 years, that's amazing. At this site, there are 15-20 sharks, and that's a resource that's not really being used. This resource could be generating a strong base for the economic future of Roatan's eco-tourism and for other countries and areas that share the same type of environment.

In Spanish, the name "Cara a Cara" means "face to face." That name clearly explains the draw of this site, as expedition members had multiple close encounters with Caribbean reef sharks.

National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry had taken the first dive at Cara a Cara earlier in the day before the rest of the expedition divers. However, still in pursuit of more shark footage, he arranged for a second dive at Cara a Cara. That second dive turned out to be more than he bargained for:

My goal of the dive was to photograph Caribbean reef sharks, particularly to capture this unique behavior that's been started here, where they're training these sharks to predate on lionfish. Because lionfish are such an invasive species inflicting a lot of damage to the reefs in the Caribbean, it's a very novel way to eradicate them.

My goal was to try to see this behavior in action. I was swimming around with a shark expert, and pretty much the whole dive we didn't see a single lionfish. There were sharks swinning around and they were pretty well behaved, keeping an eye on us. But 25 minutes into the dive, they began to act much differently.

The biologist that I was with had finally found a lionfish, but he was not able to spear it. He just saw it and began swimming towards it, and the sharks keyed in on that and just jacked up their whole attitude and became very curious. They started circling tighter and tighter, so the three of us just sort of got together and waited on the bottom, as they were coming in very tight.

Eventually they dissipated enough for us to begin ascending slowly, and once we got up 10 feet off the bottom, everything was fine. But there were certainly a few exciting moments, and a little bit of electricity. I've dived with a lot Caribbean reef sharks, and I've done a lot of shark feeds in other countries, but this was a different sort of behavior, more of a natural hunting behavior that seems to be taking place here.

Dr. Earle speaks eloquently about saving the ocean, and while this expedition has focused on the Swan Islands, there are countless areas of the ocean in need of protection. The Bay Islands of Honduras have been fortunate enough to be granted Marine National Park status. However, that protection is incomplete.

The Honduran government works closely with local NGO's, to coordinate and facilitate monitoring and management of the protected areas. The Healthy Reef Initiative, led by expedition team member Dr. Melanie McField coordinates with local NGO's, Roatan Marine Park and Bay Island Conservation Association, to work with island communities to define the parameters of restricted and multi-use zones. Many areas have been granted multi-use status rather than restricted status. In reality, areas zoned for multi-use see little to no protection. Even in restricted areas, it may only restrict take of a single species instead of broader restrictions.

It is with this deficiency in mind that expedition team members Ian Drysdale, the Honduran and Guatemalan coordinator for the Healthy Reefs Initiative, and Jennie Myton, the Honduras Field Manager for the Coral Reef Alliance invited the expedition to explore Cordelia Banks. Drysdale and Myton, both co-founders of the Roatan Marine Park, hope to promote the need to increase the protection of Cordelia Banks. Drysdale explains why Cordelia Banks is so important:

Cordelia Banks is located on the southern side of Roatan, between two of the major towns, Coxen Hole and French Harbour. We've discovered about 52 acres of staghorn coral, in 2-3 coral banks. Staghorn coral is a critically endangered species, and to find such a live colony is very exciting.

One of our hopes for Cordelia Banks is to talk to the local population, especially fishermen that use the area, and give them the information they need to realize that this site needs to be managed adequately, by them specifically. There's no point in coming in with an NGO and trying to fight our way into protecting a site. It has to be the same users of the resources that understand the value of the site and the need to manage it adequately. People are not going to protect something unless they feel empowered and like it belongs to them. Imposing laws and regulations invites opposition. By recruiting the community to help manage the resources, then that battle is already won.

With that goal in mind, Myton led Dr. Earle and a group of divers to Cordelia Banks to see the unlikely expanse of staghorn coral. One constant in all the dives in the Roatan area has been the current. In addition to sharks enjoying the currents that roar through the area, pelagic drifters like ctenophores can be found in large numbers.

In a healthy reef system, the reef acts as a buffer and refuge from the current for the smaller reef dwellers. Many of these smaller species can be seen at Cordelia, but the larger species, the snapper, and the groupers were nowhere to be seen.

The staghorn reefs at Cordelia Banks are clearly a unique jewel for the Honduran people. With the proper protections put in place, and with dedicated stewards like Drysdale and Myton, there is cause for hope for the recovery for Cordelia Banks. As Dr. Earle has made so clear to all of the expedition team members, there is no time to wait. Now is the time to act.

Using the unique hashtag #hopespots, Earle will continue to post real-time content from the expedition, including photos, blogs and video, on Twitter @bluerules and on her Friends of Dr. Sylvia Earle.

Earle and her team are also encouraging the public to join them in taking action to protect this hope spot - and others in need of MPA status - by logging on to their website - www.sylviaearlealliance.org - where they can donate to local conservation efforts aimed at safeguarding the Mesoamerican Reef.

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Filed by Joanna Zelman  |