05/29/2012 04:40 pm ET

Exuma Cays Land And Sea Park Faces Challenges As Marine Protected Area (PHOTOS)

From Mavis McRae and Mission Blue:

The team’s visit to Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park began with checking in at Park headquarters where the group met Andrew Kriz, Park Administrator and his team. In an open discussion on the park deck overlooking the blue Bahamian waters and golden sand of this protected park, Andrew spoke of the natural beauty of the park and the challenges he and his team face enforcing this no-take marine protected area. “Our biggest challenge is protecting the beauty and natural resources of the park while at the same time providing an inviting experience for the thousands of visitors we have each year.”

Visitors to the area can find-out more about visiting the park by clicking here. People often enter the park unaware of the best practices of the area. They may fish illegally or not contribute to the upkeep of the park by paying to moor up, choosing to anchor instead. In addition, islands are being developed for personal use within the park adding to the traffic and changing landscape of the area. [Text continues after images.]

Images courtesy of Mission Blue.

Exuma Cays Land And Sea Park - Mission Blue

But the larger topic of illegal harvesting of marine species is a more pressing issue. This marine protected area is a no-take zone, which means that no fish or invetebrates may be extracted from the park’s waters. Corals and fish are allowed to live and grow naturally, but it will take years before this area will fully recover.

After a relaxing trip from Soldier Cay to Hawkbill Cay, the group joined Dr. Earle on a sand bar walk. The beach-like spit looked like the perfect place for building sand castles, but with Dr. Earle’s and Eleanor Phillips’ expertise, the group soon discovered that this little slice of paradise was teaming with life. Dr. Earle commented that hundreds of thousands of organisms can live in the sand, many smaller than we could see with the naked eye. They contribute to the ecosystem by providing food and oxygen into the surrounding waters. We were happy to discover live sea dollars, juvenile beaded sea stars, blue crab, conch and a burrowing anemone.

The picturesque Shroud Cay sand bar consisted of no ordinary sand grains but ooids: small, usually 2 mm spherical grains of layered calcium carbonate. This sand pearl forms as a series of concentric layers around a nucleus, be it a shell fragment or silica grain. “Ooid shoals exist throughout the Bahamas, including the Exumas and northern Andros," states Eleanor Phillips.

After we had our fill of exploring the shallow waters, we headed out to the deep cut to look for nurse sharks. This exploration was delayed to take in a spell-binding Bahamian sunset, the first time the sun made an appearance since the start of the trip. With the remaining light, the group followed a 6 foot nurse shark lazily swimming through the shallow waters beside the boat.