Our boat approaches the area where we anchored four months ago and found a huge colony of elkhorn coral we had never seen before. The water of the Caribbean today is calm, and the visibility is the best we’ve seen in a while since it’s rainy season in Panama. We are a small team running a coral restoration project in the area – growing coral and building artificial reefs. The energy level of our group is high and I’m itching to get in the water to explore the beauty again. We find a sandy spot and throw the anchor, then get our gear together to get in the water.
I’m the first to jump in the ocean with mask, fins, snorkel and GoPro. I kick my streamlined body through the water, watching below as the sandy bottom gradually changes to the reef. When I arrive at the same area as last time my heart sinks. The huge colony that covers about half the size of a football field is dying. It has been reduced by roughly 50% since our visit four months ago. My mask fogs as I fight back tears for the rest of my time in the water.
The four of us snorkel the entire area, shocked and saddened by what we see. When we’re done, we all get back into the boat and ride back to our coral nursery in silence. Our work is incredibly fulfilling most days, but that day made us all wonder if we’re fighting a losing battle. Are we even making a difference?
Several days later a friend posts something about climate change on Facebook and I see that someone has replied to her post listing all the reasons that climate change isn’t real. I shake my head in disbelief. I can’t understand why this is a political argument. I can see the effects of climate change on a daily basis, but not everyone does. I look at the person’s profile and see that they live in a landlocked area. When I first started working on the coral restoration project even a close relative, who has never lived near the ocean, said, “It’s hard to get behind saving a coral reef.”
Is it? Do you like to breathe? Fifty percent of the oxygen we breathe is created by the ocean. Coral reefs protect the coastlines from erosion. Coral reefs are a critical part of the marine ecosystem that supports fish. Over one billion people rely on coral reefs for their livelihood. It seems like something worth saving. The struggle to raise money for our project, though, tells me most people don’t know this or it’s not hitting close enough to home. Is there hope?
A coworker recently recommended a documentary called Mission Blue. Mission Blue is an organization that inspires action to explore and protect the ocean. Led by legendary oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle, Mission Blue is uniting a global coalition to inspire an upwelling of public awareness, access and support for a worldwide network of marine protected areas called Hope Spots. Under Dr. Earle’s leadership, the Mission Blue team implements communications campaigns that elevate Hope Spots to the world stage through various methods.
Where we live is an archipelago of nine islands and there are quite a few ocean conservation groups. I make my rounds asking if people have seen the Mission Blue documentary. The idea of nominating our region as a Hope Spot gains momentum quickly. With all the interest I find, I push the effort forward. It’s a grassroots effort to avoid the red tape of officially protecting a marine area through the government and to have people who care define goals of how to educate and create awareness. We, the people, are the protectors of our marine environment.
Our area, Bocas del Toro, Panama was awarded the title of Hope Spot by Mission Blue in December 2019. Our team, currently nine women, works diligently to prepare for our official launch in February of 2020. There are people who say we will fail but many more who are cheering us on. We are confident that we can make a difference.
There is hope.