A Return to the Reefs | EcoCenter: Oceans | Smithsonian

A Return to the Reefs

With the world's coral reefs in crisis, the author's childhood memories guide a far-reaching study of the problem in the Bahamas

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I couldn’t have been more than 5 years old when my father fitted me with my first pair of swim goggles. I waded out from the beach until the silky cool water reached my chest, and then I bent my knees until my head was below the surface. As if I’d passed through the looking glass like Alice, I was suddenly inside our living room aquarium with its colony of bright, tiny sea creatures.

My smiling, similarly begoggled father was beckoning in dreamlike slow motion. Easing through the silvery ceiling of the sea, through clouds of minnows, over the dancing white sand bottom, I swam out with him until the world changed from bright sand to beige-colored rocks fringed with plants and set with purple and yellow sea fans.

My father dove eight feet to the bottom, where I could see a little cave underneath a ledge, and beckoned again. Diving down to him was as easy as flying. Under the roof of the cave a living jewel was hanging upside down, shading from deep purple at its head to brilliant yellow at its tail. It turned sideways with a wave of a magenta fin and cocked a midnight blue eye. There was a click inside my head. It was one of those moments when the world arranges itself: from now on the sea would be a top priority for me.

The fish was called a fairy basslet, my father told me when we came up for air. He would know. At the time, he was engaged in the most comprehensive study ever done of fishes of the Bahama Islands. Although he’d never been to college and had no formal scientific training, he co-authored the 771-page Fishes of the Bahamas and Adjacent Tropical Waters, first published in 1968, that documents 507 species and is still considered the classic reference.

In many ways, this book is my sibling. I spent my childhood with it in the Bahamas, watching it grow and take shape and sometimes helping it along. As a boy, I participated in many of the collecting expeditions (at least 1 or 2 of the 65 new species introduced in the book were netted by me). I know the spots where my father collected specimens as well as I know the rooms in the house where I grew up.

Both my father, Charles C.G. Chaplin, and his co-author, James Böhlke, are gone now. But a scientist at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, which supported their research, decided that the specimens, notes, photographs and films they accumulated over 15 years provide a unique opportunity to compare the marine environment in the Bahamas then and now. In 2004, Dominique Dagit (who has since moved from the Academy to Millersville University in Pennsylvania) began one of the first 50-year retrospective studies of coral reef life.

As the only surviving member of the original research team, I returned to the Bahamas to show Dagit and her colleagues the sites where my father had collected specimens and made observations. It was the first time I’d been back since our house was sold in the 1970s, and what I found was shocking.

The world’s coral reefs are in trouble. According to the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN), an international consortium of scientists and volunteers, only 30 percent of reefs are healthy now, down from 41 percent in 2000. United States government agencies, conservation organizations and other scientists echo the point. A few go so far as to say that coral reefs in some areas may be doomed. In the Caribbean, the area of seafloor covered by live hard coral has decreased by 80 percent in the past 30 years.

A coral reef is actually a colony of small polyps, related to jellyfish, that secrete a limestone exoskeleton and nourish themselves mainly through a symbiotic relationship with photosynthesizing algae. Modern coral reefs as we know them have been accumulating since the Holocene Epoch 10,000 years ago. They are the largest durable biological constructions on earth, and support more kinds of species than any other marine environment. They sustain many fishes that people rely on for food, and they protect coastlines and attract tourists. A 1997 study estimated that reefs contribute $375 billion a year to the world’s economy.

The most serious threat to coral reefs—overshadowing natural cataclysms such as hurricanes, floods and tsunamis—is human activity. Overfishing, begun hundreds of years ago, has depleted the populations of many of the fishes that graze on algae and keep it from smothering the reefs. Runoff laden with sediment and pollutants further fuels the growth of algae and spreads harmful bacteria.

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