07/22/2011 07:48 pm ET Updated Sep 21, 2011

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

From the Sylvia Earle Alliance:

On day five of their voyage to the Mesoamerican Reef, the Mission Blue expedition team, led by Dr. Sylvia Earle, world-renowned oceanographer, National Geographic Explorer-In-Residence and 2009 TED Prize Winner, bid farewell to the Swan Islands as they make their way aboard the Utila Aggressor to their next diving destination -– the Cordelia Bank.

The week-long expedition led by the Sylvia Earle Alliance in partnership with the Health Reefs Initiative aims to raise awareness of the critical importance of the Mesoamerican Reef to the overall health of the ocean system and to catalyze support for the declaration of this “hope spot” as an official marine protected area (MPA). Earle coined the term “hope spots” to describe existing MPAs as well as target regions in need of official MPA status.

With the hope of MPA status always top of mind, the story of the Swan Islands boils down to one subject. Protection. The Swan Islands are referred to as the “Galapagos of the Caribbean,” and it was that description that the team carried with them in the long crossing. But the reality of the Swan Islands is that even here on this isolated island, over-fishing has severely impacted the reef ecosystems. The expedition team has repeatedly noted a lack of fish during their dives.

Dr. Sylvia Earle shares her experience diving in the Swan Islands this week, calling on the people and government of Honduras to help protect this hope spot:

That's part of why we're here in the Swan Islands, to look at the nature of this place that has periodically been fished very hard. It's evident because the groupers, the snapper, the big fish, and a lot of the little ones that aren't taken to market, are also gone. It's an empty place in respect to fish. The good news is that the elements are still there. There are small numbers, but with a great diversity, that provides hope. If we could just take the pressure off...

This place ought to be, not only a safe haven, but also a source of renewal for much more depleted spots throughout the Caribbean. It is a hope spot and we need to regard it that way. I hope the people and the government of Honduras will use this as an opportunity to secure this place. It already has a military base established there, and it would give such stature to the country. There's hope for even the fisherman, if there's hope for the fish.
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All photos courtesy of Kip Evan Photography.

Expedition member David Shaw echoes Earle’s feelings on what makes the Swan Islands a strong case for protection:

Because the Swan Islands are far from any human activity, I think there is hope to secure official protection for this important area. Some of these places people visit along the way, or in dive or fishing boats, but it's so isolated that it would obviously be a special trip to get there. I think that's good in terms of protecting this area in the future. It's not clear if there's a lot of competition for the site.

Shark team leader Dr. Rachel Graham sums up her work at the Swan Islands:

My hope was to find that Swan Islands was serving as a haven for sharks; however, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I was truly pleased that we observed sharks on 90% of the 28 hour-long deployments of the baited remote underwater videos. We recorded three species – Caribbean reef shark, great hammerhead and and nurse shark. Interestingly, the divers rarely encountered any sharks during almost 200 hours underwater.

Admittedly, I was shocked by the overall lack of large predatory finfish, particularly in comparison to other sites in the Caribbean where I have worked. We very rarely encountered any large snapper, grouper, barracuda or mackerel.

But again, the lack of adult sharks and large finfish perplexes and worries me, and in my mind, it's clear that this site has been recently overfished. The Swan Islands could become a wonderful haven for sharks and reef fish, and potentially a source of fish for other overfished sites in the Western Caribbean. Successful protection and upholding of the ban on fishing at this site, in addition to the national ban on fishing of sharks, will require committed and well-funded enforcement by the Honduran Government. I hope that our rapid survey will provide additional incentive to protect the Swan Islands and its toothy denizens.

Reef assessment team leader Dr. Melanie McField stresses the vital importance of protecting the Mesoamerican Reef:

By raising awareness about the natural beauty and conservation value of the Swan Islands, we can make it one of the jewels of Honduras' marine conservation portfolio.

The Swan Islands really need to have a higher level of conservation and enforcement. Hopefully by having Sylvia Earle, National Geographic and our regional monitoring team survey and photograph this beautiful place, we can raise awareness and attract conservation funding for the area. The wholeness of the terrestrial and marine ecosystems really makes these islands unique. There is still hope. We just have to work with our Honduran NGO colleagues and the government to figure out the details and receive funding for assistance and monitoring.

We can make a difference in the Swan Islands, so that it can reach its full conservation potential.

Sylvia Earle Alliance board member Shari Sant Plummer remains positive in light of the obviously overfished reefs:

I think the expedition was successful, although it was disappointing in terms of some of the things we saw. We went to see what sort of shape the reefs were in at Swan Island and we found out. It wasn't the answer we wanted but, unfortunately, that's more and more common around the globe. It's not really surprising that even as far away as the Swan Islands are from any kind of mainland, they're still hammered with overfishing. That was disappointing.

It also apparently has been hammered by hurricanes, so there is a good deal of resulting coral damage. And because there are no fish to keep the whole ecosystem healthy and resilient, the reefs are more vulnerable to natural damage caused by hurricanes.

Even in a reef that is suffering, as the Swan Islands are, you can still find some really incredible fish. Goliath grouper, tarpon, a trio of squid – all those discoveries were highlights for me... It's still a really beautiful place, well worth protecting, and if it could make a comeback, it would be an incredible place.

Kip Evans, Sylvia Earle Alliance expedition leader puts the voyage in perspective:

In planning our expedition to the Swan Islands, we were really diving into the unknown. When you undertake a voyage where little to no data exists, underwater images, or video footage, you have to paint that image for yourself. I painted an image filled with sharks, fish, and healthy corals. But as any explorer will tell you, dreams and reality can be much different. As much as I wanted to find a healthy oasis in the heart of the Caribbean, we found a reef stressed by overfishing and hurricanes. As a diver I'm disappointed, but as a conversationalist, I see an opportunity to help protect the Swan Islands before it's too late. My hope is that we will be able to take the images and data that we created through hours of underwater work and make a difference for the fish and corals of this area.

The expedition team moves into the next phase of their voyage today, looking at other areas in the Honduran Bay Islands in desperate need of preservation, including the Cordelia Banks.

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 – – where they can donate to local conservation efforts aimed at safeguarding the Mesoamerican Reef.

Continue to visit The Huffington Post Green for exclusive photos from the Mission Blue expedition led by Dr. Sylvia Earle.