Bahamas vs The Manacles

Without hesitation most divers would choose to spend a few days in warm Caribbean seas than in cold British waters. No contest surely. Over-there, 30m visibility in azure blue seas teeming with life. Over-here? Well it’s so variable. But even on a good day with our grey-green waters and limited visibility no match for the vibrant West Indies.

In the 1970s I had dived in the Caribbean and been thrilled with the sight of shoals of French grunt and Striped porkfish around wrecks; the parrot fish, angels and Nassau groupers on the reefs. And the invertebrate life was equally colourful and packed: sponges, gorgonians and hard corals, like elkhorn.

Last year I returned to some of the same islands, but it was a Caribbean I hardly recognised. No shoals of French grunt or porkfish greeted me. And where was that icon of West Indian waters, the ubiquitous elkhorn coral? One little bit I spotted and it was bleached and dead.

On what was reckoned to be – by local dive guides – one of the best dives for marine life off south west New Providence Island there were a series of small coral heads, acting as miniature coral reefs with gorgonians, sponges, fire and brain corals. They were populated with just small numbers of reef fish, like blue tang, trumpet, blue chromis and small parrot fish.

The two wrecks we dived had very little marine growth although one was sunk 10 years ago. No fish shoals surrounded them.

This is quite different from Cornish waters where all wrecks appear to have their fish populations. In summer on the Manacle reefs off the Lizard it is possible to see shoals of mackerel and bass along with groups of mullet, cuttlefish, the wrasse family, plus all the invertebrates like jewel anemones, plumose, dead man’s fingers, crabs and lobsters.

What we have, many believe, has diminished over the decades, but nothing like as much as in some parts of the Caribbean.

The national fish of the Bahamas is the Nassau grouper. It occupies a similar role in the Bahamas or West Indies as does cod here. It is one of the most important commercial fish in the West Indies and it is now on the World Conservation Union’s (IUCN) Red List of Endangered Species. Due to over-fishing it has already been eliminated from much of its historic range in the Caribbean.

Normally a solitary animal it aggregates in December, January and February to form huge spawning shoals at specific sites throughout the Caribbean. These balls or walls of grouper, numbering up to 100,000, have provided spectacular sights for divers and underwater photographers in the past. Unfortunately these aggregations have also provided a harvest bonanza for fishermen who have been so successful in netting these shoals that the Nassau grouper is now commercially extinct throughout much of the Caribbean. Fishing for Nassau grouper is now banned in many areas during the spawning period. Bermuda banned it 30 years ago, but the Nassau grouper has not returned.

The fear of losing more marine life is leading to the creation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) but there is strong resistance from the fishermen. There are proposals for MPAs covering the south western reefs of New Providence Island, Abaco, Walker’s Cay and the Biminis.

Existing MPAs such as the Exumas Cays Land and Sea Park, Pelican Cays National Park at Abaco, and Lucayan National Park at Grand Bahama Island certainly have a lot more marine life and are regarded as having been successful. MPAs are also likely to be proposed here in the UK and are also likely to be fiercely opposed by the fishermen. Still, MPAs will not save elkhorn coral. It is dying because sea temperatures are rising.

Corals flourish in the narrow temperature range 25-29 deg C. When we were diving it was around 30 deg C and that was in October when surface waters would already have started to cool. Bleaching is said to occur when water temperatures reach 32 deg C.

So today it wouldn’t be hard to argue that in good visibility in the summer there is more to see on a Cornish reef like the Manacles than in many parts of the Caribbean. The next question could be: “But for how long”.

Tony Sutton

Extract from HVMCA newsletter No.33 Autumn 2006

© Helford Voluntary Marine Conservation Area