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April 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 24, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Hurricane Omar Damages Bonaire’s Reefs But Saves Its Eels

from the April, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Because it’s out of the Caribbean’s hurricane belt, Bonaire has ducked some major storms over the years. Not so in October, when Hurricane Omar hit the island. Marine park staff surveyed the reefs a few days later and reported a lot of overturned corals, significant silting, and rubble in shallower areas along the west coast.

Undercurrent readers who visited Bonaire afterwards report serious damage. “Omar stripped all life down to 25 feet so no snorkeling left; you have to go below 30 feet to see reef life,” said Larry Polster (Martinsville, IN), who went in February. “It also took out most docks. At Town Pier, they had to scrape the pilings to inspect damage, so the famous night dive there is gone.” Hal Berson (New York, NY), who visited last month, had the same observations. “Much of the coral was dead and most of the fish were juvenile. These were magnificent reefs but the truth is they will take quite some time to return.”

The marine park survey stated damage is most evident on west coast sites and down to 50-foot depths. Shallows in the dive sites between Sabarieco and 1,000 Steps got the heaviest impact. The east coast, protected from the westerly winds, didn’t get any damage. Omar was the biggest storm to hit since “Wrong Way Lenny,” which moved west to east across the Caribbean in 1999, but the later storm had more impact. Omar’s waves were more intense and came in a west-to-northwest direction instead of the typical southwest pattern, hitting the reefs directly and devastating some shoreside buildings.

Dee Scarr, owner of Bonaire dive operation Touching the Sea, told the Bonaire Reporter that while she saw less coral damage than expected, divers can help coral most by gently freeing them of debris, and reporting large obstructions to the marine park staff for removal. Now the most important thing to do is dust off the significant amount of silt resting atop sponges. Because sponges get oxygen and food by pulling in and filtering seawater, silt layers hinder the process.

For visiting divers who happen to see silty sponges, here’s Dee’s advice: “First, you must be a skilled enough diver to avoid making contact with the reef and live coral. Fan with your hand for best control, but don’t touch the sponge. After the sponge is cleared of silt, look to see where the silt went. If it landed on living coral, gently fan it off without making contact. Be especially cautious when you’re fanning close to the sand bottom, because the water movement that fans the sand off the sponge also lifts it off the bottom and on top of everything around it.”

One upside is Omar may have flushed away the reason why Bonaire eels were turning up dead since last summer. Jerry Ligon, resident naturalist at Bonaire Dive & Adventure, had recorded 50 moray deaths by October, mostly spotted, green and viper morays. Two marine biologists from the University of Puerto Rico investigated and concluded the eels were affected by a bacteria called vibrio. One species of this genus is the primary agent in human cholera, so it’s a gruesome bacteria for any creature to be infected with, liquefying stomach contents and causing abdominal pain and bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract and, obviously, death. Its presence in the water is a direct result of untreated sewage.

Luckily, Omar’s heavy surf may have cleared away the vibrio source, “because since Omar, no more dead eels,” Ligon reports. On dives in December and January, he saw mostly juvenile but healthy morays, which indicates to him that this generation is vibrio-free.

“Omar also cleaned out all the thick reddish algae that was covering the bottom and sections of coral rubble along the entire western coast and many sections of Klein Bonaire,” says Ligon. “This algae was determined to be a death warrant for Bonaire’s reefs.” To prevent its return, resorts have been reminded to stop their sewage from accumulating and overflowing into coastal reefs. Now they are supposed to have their septic collection systems pumped out and hauled to the island center by “honey trucks” on a regular schedule, until Bonaire gets its sewage treatment plant built in 2012.

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