“People protect what they love, they love what they understand and they understand what they are taught.” – Jacques-Yves Cousteau,
The quote above has always resonated with me. It’s true, people protect what they love. Growing up in the Cayman Islands I learned from an early age that our oceans, marine life, and coral reefs are one of the greatest treasures and assets we have been bestowed custodians of. We have a moral obligation to protect and preserve the precious coral reefs surrounding our islands. After all, our coral reefs are the very heart of Cayman. From a young age, in school, we are taught that Cayman has always had a strong and deep connection to the ocean. Our Coat of Arms has the words, “He Hath Founded It Upon The Seas” inscribed. For many of us, these words serve as a reminder that our past, present, and future is and always will be linked to the ocean.
The generations before us built our heritage on this strong connection to the ocean. The Cayman Islands heavily relies on our Tourism Industry, and a significant component of that is built on the snorkeling and diving industry. Thanks to pioneers in Cayman’s diving industry such as Bob Soto, who saw that our underwater paradise is an invaluable asset to Cayman and by making it accessible to both locals and tourists Cayman has become a world famous diving destination. This legacy and pride of showcasing our reefs as a major tourist attraction continues with young Caymanians. Today, there is an increase in young Caymanians who are becoming PADI certified divers and taking courses focused on marine biology and environmental studies. Moreover, the youth of Cayman, like the generations before us, recognize the ecological and monetary value of preserving Cayman’s marine environment.
People travel from all over the world to explore and experience the stunning underwater landscape that surrounds Cayman. We have 365 dive sites, offering world class diving experiences for both locals and tourists. Some of our most famous world renowned dive/snorkel sites include Eden Rock, Devils Grotto, The Balboa (Historic Shipwreck), and Soto’s Reef that are situated in the heart of the George Town Harbor. Currently, these iconic dive sites that have existed for over 10,000 years, and collectively is approximately 20 acres of coral reef is under threat of being damaged, removed and/or transplanted should the proposed expansion of a cruise ship berthing facility go through. I cannot truly express the gravity and the magnitude of the potential loss of this paramount ecosystem. My heart sinks when I begin to think of the loss of biodiversity, the loss of the clarity of our ocean in this particular area, the loss of history and the loss of our heritage. Furthermore, it is more than a significant loss from an environmental standpoint, it impacts our economy, diving industry, and tourism industry. Watersport activities including snorkeling and diving in the George Town area earn approximately $6-8 million dollars a year. If the proposal for the cruise ship berthing facility goes through then we potentially could lose hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue over the next 20 years, due to the loss of this precious ecosystem.
Why We Should Protect Our Underwater Paradise
Living in the Cayman Islands allowed me to have the incredible privilege of having easy access to some of the world’s most spectacular coral reefs, where an abundance of marine life is teeming. I remember when I was a child and my dad taught me how to swim and to snorkel. I remember all the weekends we would spend exploring the ocean. I remember for one of my birthday’s my parents took me and my friends on a glass bottom boat so we could see the coral reefs and marine life in the George Town Harbor. As kids, it was an exhilarating and memorable experience. We all marveled at the world that existed below the surface, it was truly fascinating. Whenever friends and family came to visit we would always take them on the Atlantis Submarine so they could see the underwater world that we were proud of and are fortunate to have access to every day. It was never something to take for granted. In particular, I spent a significant amount of time as a child and even still today exploring Eden Rock. It is a place I cherish most. It is such a profound privilege and luxury to have easy access to crystal clear waters and exploring firsthand the extraordinary beauty that resides just below the surface. Throughout my life, a tremendous love for the ocean has always been instilled in me. As well as, an urgency to protect our oceans and all life that calls the ocean home. Knowing that this spectacular underwater world exists and surrounds our tiny islands, is something to be proud of. It is something that is so valuable to our island, our community, our economy, and our heritage that it must be protected through conservation. We must unite and preserve these iconic dive sites in the George Town Harbor that were part of the genesis of building our island’s diving and tourism industry. We need to preserve these reefs so that the youth today, and generations to come can be afforded the same privilege so many of us have had, seeing these ancient coral reefs in all of their glory. As a child, it never occurred to me that these reefs could one day be gone. Now, decades later, there is a very real possibility that these iconic reefs and historic shipwrecks could disappear.
Preserving Cayman’s Unique Harbor
The George Town Harbor is a designated Hope Spot by Mission Blue. A Hope Spot is a special ecological habitat that is considered to be critical to the health of the ocean. These special areas are recognized as being in need of protection and conservation. The preservation of Hope Spots around the world allow valuable ecosystems an opportunity for coral reefs, and marine life to rejuvenate and strengthen. This is vital to their surrounding habitat and marine life dependent on its survival. Hope Spots and Marine Protected Areas remind us that our marine ecosystems are precious, fragile and worth preserving. Our oceans are home to an underwater paradise, parallel to rainforests. Coral reefs are intricate ecosystems that are fundamental to marine life and the underwater communities dependent upon them. Marine ecosystems have a precarious balance, and everything is interconnected. Therefore, any form of breakdown in one part of the ecosystem sets off a ripple effect.
The George Town Harbor is unique as it acts as a safe and stable environment for coral reefs, fish, turtles, sharks to thrive and replenish their populations. This makes it both special from an environmental standpoint and as a tourist attraction. The marine environment generates $69 million USD from tourism every year in the Cayman Islands (Wolfs Company 2017). The George Town Harbor is an ideal snorkeling and diving area as it has mostly calm throughout the year making it very appealing to tourists who have traveled to Cayman just to see our reefs and have less than 24 hours to explore our oceans. A unique feature of the George Town Harbor is that in the relatively shallow water, 30ft deep, you can find some of the largest coral reef structures in Cayman, with the exception of, off the main wall. Moreover, tourists with limited time to explore Cayman, have the incredible opportunity to easy access to the multiple snorkel/dive sites in the harbor within minutes thanks to multiple dive operators in the area. As a result, these are some of the most visited and most photographed dive sites in Cayman. Moreover, coral reefs also serve as a barrier, protecting our mainland during storms and hurricanes. The reef is responsible for $5 million USD protection to infrastructure in the Cayman Islands from storms and wave erosion each year (Wolfs Company 2017).
Eden Rock & Devils Grotto
Famous for the unique underwater caves, silversides and tarpons make Eden Rock a beloved dive/snorkel site. It is one of the most accessible sites throughout the year. Other highlights to see snorkeling in this area are the coral reefs, spotted eagle rays, parrotfish, silversides, angelfish and nurse sharks.
One of Cayman’s most famous shipwreck’s, The Balboa is an important part of our history. In 1938, the navy vessel was crewed by a number of Caymanians, some of their families still reside in Cayman today. The Balboa was brought in during rough weather but unfortunately sank. This historic shipwreck is a highlight for snorkelers and divers as the shipwreck has coral reef formations on it such as brain coral, star coral, soft coral, and sponges.
Soto’s Reef is an integral part of Cayman’s diving history, as Bob Soto was a pioneer in the diving industry. Soto’s Reef is a truly spectacular coral reef structure and a hub for an abundance of marine life making it one of Cayman’s most treasured and beloved dive/snorkel sites. The coral reefs extend a mile long and about 30ft in height. As a snorkeler, you can marvel at the coral reefs only 10ft below the surface. An array of schools of fish can be seen such as: blue tangs, damselfish and parrotfish. An amazing spot for taking underwater photos. Coral reef structures include fire coral, brain coral, as well as colorful sea fans and sponges. Often you can see turtles and spotted eagle rays swimming along the reef.
Preserving Our Iconic Underwater Paradise
“We don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” -David Browner.
Globally, our environment is in crisis. And we have a chance to protect and preserve 20 acres of ancient coral reefs that have existed for over 10,000 years in the George Town Harbor. We have an incredible opportunity to choose a legacy of preserving some of Cayman’s iconic reefs to ensure that they remain part of the future of the youth today and generations to come. The diving industry is the economic heart of our tourism industry. Diving and snorkeling is the single most popular reason why tourists visit Cayman. Grand Cayman, at this moment, continues to be unique as it still has crystal clear water and thriving coral reefs in the harbor. This is due to the fact that unlike other Caribbean islands, up until now, we have not expanded our port. By doing so, we have been able to maintain the integrity of our island’s heritage and protecting Cayman’s beloved underwater national treasures.
We cannot rob future generations of the opportunity to experience the coral reefs in the George Town Harbor that were instrumental in making Cayman a leader in the diving industry and tourism, that we have had the chance to experience. If the port goes through, iconic dive sites such as Eden Rock, Devil’s Grotto, The Balboa and Soto’s Reef will be gone. We will never see the recovery of this 20 acre ecosystem in our lifetime. It took 10,000 years for those reefs to become what they are now. For many of us, at least we will have beautiful memories of marine life, coral reefs, and the Balboa. Future generations won’t even have that. They will only have the memories we share, photographs and videos that document what was there. Once it’s gone, it will leave behind a graveyard of coral, a wasteland. This will result in negative consequences for local fisheries and the marine environment as a whole. We will be left with the ghost of a memory of the underwater world that existed there. Not only will we lose a significant ecosystem, but we also stand to lose a profound piece of our island’s heritage, for many a piece of their childhood, and for some their livelihood. We have this one last chance to make a difference, to protect what we love and what has helped build our island into a major tourist destination, supporting our economy. We have this one opportunity to choose a legacy to preserve this iconic piece of our heritage and underwater paradise.
The thought of losing these precious dive sites that are thriving with life is devastating. Some things in this life are irreplaceable. Once it’s gone you can’t go back to it, you can’t rebuild it, you are just left with the memory of what once was, and what use to exist. Those coral reefs are not just part of our marine environment, they are part of our home. That is something worth protecting, cherishing and preserving for future generations.
Knowing that there is a chance it could all be gone. I implore you to join the National Trust for the Cayman Islands and special guest speaker Aaron Hunt who will be leading the tour exploring the 20 acres of historic coral reefs, Eden Rock, Devils Grotto, Soto’s Reef and the wreck of the Balboa. See for yourself, the life that lives below the surface, the turtles, sharks, array of schools of fish, and coral reefs rich in biodiversity. Take a good look at the underwater paradise that is at stake of being lost for generations to come.