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A Home Away From Home

reef-heros_7TCI’s ReefBall coral relocation project makes transplantation a success.

Story & Photos By Christopher Guglielmo

Imagine yourself snorkeling off the beach in the perfect turquoise waters of Providenciales’ Grace Bay. You pass a patch of turtle grass where conch and sand dollars line the bottom. You get a bit further out, past several stands of brain coral and sea fans and find a hawksbill turtle chomping away at a sponge. Schooling parrotfish and juvenile angelfish fight for your attention. And then out of the corner of your eye you spy . . . something resting on the bottom. Is it trash? Part of a kid’s playground perhaps? An ancient turtle shell? Something left over from a construction site? And wow! Look at all those fish living in it! That is exactly what the creators of the Turks & Caicos ReefBall Project want you to experience.

Karma. Sense of duty. Love of the ocean. Whatever it is, it’s driving a small group of Turks & Caicos residents including the Turks & Caicos Junior Park Wardens, to literally save the reef, one coral head at a time. Unknown, and all too often underappreciated, this small band of reef heroes is participating in a new coral relocation project, with efforts on minimizing the environmental impact of the exponential growth that Providenciales has seen in the past few years. It’s dirty, backbreaking work, but the results will benefit us down the road in ways you may have never considered.

In recent years, much of the attention owed to the Turks & Caicos — Providenciales in particular — has shifted from the beautiful beaches, reefs, sunsets and people to a focus on real estate, new stores and new roads. While the rapid progress is great for everyone and is often the talk of the town, it’s too easy to lose sight of the fact that these Islands are composed of and dependant on trillions, or perhaps quadrillions of tiny animals clumped together. Generation upon generation, tiny coral polyps have grown on top of each other, forming the underwater paradise that we so cherish. These little buggers deserve our respect, and from time to time, need a helping hand.

The focus of the coral relocation project’s recent activities has been a small section of beachfront on the north side of Providenciales, where the future plans for a beach renourishment project will bring about a potential change in the ecosystem. To help preserve the biodiversity of Grace Bay’s coastal waters, the upcoming Third Turtle Club had requested an impact assessment to minimize or negate potential damage to the surrounding ecosystem. It was recommended that a portion of the marine life be relocated to avoid the stressing factors due to this change in beach topography. The development managers wanted to help minimize any damage in the most responsible manner, but where to put all of these soon-to-be homeless corals, anemones and sponges? Enter, the ReefBall.

ReefBalls are nothing more than a specially designed concrete dome that rests on the ocean bottom and serves as a home for marine life. Over the course of several years, they will become naturally populated with native species, and after several generations of coral growth, they will become virtually indistinguishable from the real reef. But since there is a collection of imperiled corals that need a new home, why not give the ReefBalls a kick start with hundreds of specimens of hard and soft corals, gorgonians and other sedentary marine life?

To get the project moving more quickly, the project manager called upon the help of the Turks & Caicos Junior Park Wardens. Over several days, they transplanted corals from the future construction site to the ReefBalls at the Reef Discovery Site, which lies in Grace Bay, about a half mile from their prior home. This new site was selected partly because of its similarity to the coral’s previous environment with regards to depth, water movement and chemical composition, but also because of its accessibility to snorkelers and the people monitoring the progress of the coral. Now you can reach this new reef by swimming 1–2 minutes from your car!

The process of transplanting coral involves some hard work. The first step is to remove the coral from its home with crude tools like a chisel and hammer. This usually means taking a large chunk of the substrate as well, which makes many of the pieces quite heavy. In this case, the removal site was shallow enough for the workers to just use a mask and snorkel. This must be done very carefully by trained workers to minimize damage to the specimens. Next, the corals are hoisted onto a boat and driven to the Reef Discovery Site to be dropped into their new home. The merry band of nine reef heroes, including four of Provo’s Junior Park Wardens, can now begin the task of selecting a location to place the corals within the ReefBall zone. The water here ranges from 10 to 20 feet deep, so scuba gear was used to do much of the rest of the work.

While the surface support team is mixing bags of quick-setting concrete called “Water Plug,” the scuba team drops the coral heads into place. Meanwhile, the snorkel team relays back and forth, and prepares to bring down the bags of concrete. Once the action begins, it races along at a frantic pace. Several factors are time-sensitive. First, the concrete will harden in as little as eight minutes, so time is of the essence. Second are the limitations of people underwater. Even in the warm 85º waters of Grace Bay, four to five hours of exposure will chill anyone. And while a scuba tank may last 50 to 60 minutes on a casual dive, the hard work of lifting 30 pound coral heads can use up air at a frantic pace. But perhaps the most important time-sensitive issue is getting the corals out of the boat and into the ocean as quickly as possible. Coral, anemones and sponges do not tolerate exposure to air very well, and to avoid damaging the very creatures they are trying to save, this stage of the relocation must go off like clockwork.

Once all three teams are in place (surface, snorkel and scuba), the game begins in a flurry of action. The scuba team indicates their readiness to the snorkel team, who then receives a bag of concrete mixed by the surface team. A snorkeler dives down with the delivery, and the scuba team goes to work. At first, the water plug is a grey-brown cloudy mess as it is squeezed into the cracks where the coral lies. The mess matters not to the scuba team, who use their fingers to push the toothpaste-consistency substance around the base of the corals in what is now three-inch visibility water. But the cloud quickly clears and just as you can make out the shape of the divers, another bag is delivered by the snorkeling team. This process is repeated over and over until all of the nearly 200 animals have been safely glued onto the ReefBalls.

reefballmapOver the next few months, the progress of the transplanted corals was closely monitored, and with the help of the Junior Park Wardens and the National Environmental Center, the odds of success were extremely high (95% survival). Even before the corals were transplanted to their new homes, there was already an abundance of life in and around the ReefBalls. Almost immediately, a pair of juvenile grey angelfish began to investigate the new structures, and a small nurse shark took up residence inside one of the balls. Upon diving on the site one week later, the variety of marine life in the ReefBalls was through the roof, with dozens of damsels, four-eye and banded butterflyfish, a spotted moray eel and even a young hawksbill turtle swimming just a few feet away. Project successful!

Christopher Guglielmo has lived in the Turks & Caicos Islands since 2002, where he spends 2–3 hours underwater nearly every day pursuing his great passion of underwater photography.  During his time off as a yacht captain for the Turks & Caicos Aggressor II, Christopher travels the globe in search of the next great photographic opportunity, both underwater and topside. To view his photos, visit www.aquaexposure.com.



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