Each semester at CIEE, we cap things off with a snorkeling trip to the back reef of Lac Bay where there are impressive stands of Staghorn (Acropora cervicornis) and Elkhorn (Acropora palmata) Coral. We save this trip for last because it is a once-in-a-lifetime type opportunity to see dense stands of corals that are now sadly quite rare.
Both of these Acropora species were once tremendously abundant throughout the Caribbean. Stories from the days of old conjure images of storms that would wash ashore so much Acropora that people with waterfront homes couldn’t open their front doors. Because the corals were so dense, they posed navigation difficulties and boats would have to cut channels through them for passage. At present, it is hard to imagine cutting through corals that are listed under the US Endangered Species Act, but these corals were once incredibly abundant. Throughout the Caribbean, populations of these corals have been reduced by a whopping 80-98%, mostly due to a couple fast spreading and deadly diseases associated with human wastewater.
Throughout the semester, our students hear a lot about Acropora, see a lot of pictures in class, here the stories of how they were once abundant, and occasionally see a colony here or there. The snorkeling trip then serves as an eye opening experience of what a healthy stand of Acropora can look like. One stand of staghorn coral in Lac Bay is roughly 200m long by 30m wide (you can actually see it on Google Maps). This tremendous stand of Acropora can be looked at two ways: a depressing reminder of what Caribbean coral reefs used to look like and how much they’ve changed or a reminder that Acropora have not been completely wiped out and that there is hope for them. We prefer the latter at CIEE. While corals worldwide are indeed facing tremendous problems, there are solutions and strives are being made to correct these problems. For instance, world leaders are currently meeting to talk about how to tackle climate change, a major stressor of coral reefs. Our twelve 2015 Fall students now understand these problems and solutions well and it is our hope at CIEE that by training excellent students on these subjects, we can be a positive force for the future of corals.