We eat breakfast at 7 in the morning on Cayo Cochino Menor, prepare picnic lunches for the divers, and the Ranger expedition divides into two groups for the activities of the day.
The research team and divers climb aboard the Honduran Coral Reef Fund’s launch “Tiburón,” which is waiting for us at the dock. The first group is transported to the Oceana Ranger, which has been moored at a buoy in the inlet for greater security during the night.
On the Ranger, we finalize the last details to conduct a bathymetric study in the northern zone of the marine park…
The operation will consist of taking depth measurements at different selected points. Once the points have been selected and their depth determined, buoys can be installed to delimit the protected areas of the marine park in what is called the Northern Macrozone, an area approximately 10 miles in diameter. Elias Aguilar, one of the park’s resource guards (“guarda recursos”), accompanies Oceana’s Xavier Pastor and Ricardo Aguilar and helps us to coordinate the project. The Fund has decided to call its staff in Cayos Cochinos “resource guards” rather than the classic “park guards” (“guarda parques”) to emphasize the fact that their work, in protecting the natural environment, is intended principally to safeguard the responsible use of the marine resources, and thereby guarantee their sustainability for the local Garifuna communities that fish these waters in a controlled way.
With the aid of GPS, nautical charts, and the Ranger’s eco-sonar [Editor’s note: If anyone knows how to translate “ecosondadores,” let me know!] that will help us determine depth and the character of the bottom, we begin navigating. We select and visit ten sites, then return to the base around five in the afternoon. We have contributed to the demarcation of the marine protected area around Cayos Cochinos. Once this phase of work has been finalized the Fund will be able to install the buoys that indicate to boaters that this is a zone subject to stringent regulations.
Meanwhile, the dive team, led by Mar Mas and including Houssine Kaddachi, Soledad Esnaola and Inés García, has completed two dives, the first at a depth of 30-40 meters and the second at 20 meters. Both have been at Roatan Bank, north of Cayo Mayor. They are always accompanied by one of the Fund’s biologists, Francisco Canañas, and are always under the watchful eye, from the surface, of Bibi Alvarez, one of Oceana’s sailors and the woman tasked with ensuring the safety of the dive operation.
Once again the divers have met a Nassau grouper (Epinephelus striatus), a few black durgon (Melichthys niger), barracudas (Sphyraena barracuda), yellowtail snapper (Ocyurus chrysurus), French angel fish (Pomacanthus paru), foureye butterflyfish (Chaetodon capistratus) and banded butterflyfish (C. striatus), yellowtail damselfish (Microspathodon chrysurus), blue vase sponges (Callyspongia plicifera), and long-spined urchins (Diadema antillarum). This urchin suffered a severe decline in almost all of the Caribbean because of an epidemic that in some areas killed 90 percent of the population. Curiously, the opposite has happened outside of the urchin’s natural habitat; as an introduced species, it has become a plague in some areas, like the Canary Islands.
They also encountered another of the target species of this expedition: a barrel sponge. These organisms grow very slowly, can live for up to 500 years and are extremely sensitive, so that one brush by a diver can destroy them. They can grow to a height of two meters.
We wait until nightfall and then dive again, this time at Pelican Point, at a depth of 40 meters.
The area is rich in gorgonians of every kind: common sea fans (Gorgonia ventalina), Venus’ sea fans (Gorgonia flabellum), sea plumes (Pseudopterogorgia spp.), sea rods (Plexaurella spp.), sea whips (Ellisella barbadensis), etc. And on all of them we find gorgonian stars or basket stars (Astrophyton muricatum) and a few prosobranchia gastropods like those called “flamingo tongues” (Cyphoma gibbosum), which feed on coral polyps.
Luck is on our side and once again we find many other species, including gorgeous spotted drums (Equetus punctatus), longspine squirrelfish (Holocentrus rufus), foureye butterflyfish (Chaetodon capistratus), Caribbean lobster (Panulirus argus), channel clinging crab (Mithrax spinosissimus), queen angelfish (Holacanthus ciliaris), blue tang (Acanthurus coeruleus), and bluehead wrasse (Thalassoma bifasciatum), among many others. Not to mention important shoals of spadefish (Chaetodipterus faber) and horse-eye jack (Caranx latus). This last is one of the overexploited species in this area.
The day has been intense. Eating dinner we make plans for tomorrow.