The Depths of the Sea: Reef Ecology Takes Bennington to the Caymans

By Jorja Rose '18

It stirs me to think of coral reefs as something like the biological Louvre. Betsy warned me months before our diving trip that she often cries underwater, a quality I wrote off at the time as a result of her unique enthusiasm for aquatic life.  But my first trip down, I was struck by a singular thought -- Every moment of my life, this place has been functioning to its full capacity, and I haven’t even been aware of it until now.  

As I descended into the sea and the sunlight began to warp, I laid eyes for the first time on an alien landscape.  Every organism, every pattern of movement, was wildly unfamiliar.  Schools of blue chromises pushed past, my body an obstruction to their collective path.  As parrotfish munched happily on the calcium carbonate coral skeleton, their beaks made an odd cracking noise that reverberated underwater.  Elkhorn coral waved their long, reddish branches, like leafless trees in a steady wind.  Mutton snappers eyed our dive team thoughtfully, wondering if we’d come to slice up invasive lionfish and feed them a meal by hand.  The spectacle is one of both strict order and utter chaos, a unified organic body and a million tiny, colorful, flitting parts.

Scientific-spiritual awakening aside, Grand Cayman came as a mixed bag.  What I had the opportunity to observe underwater is really an echo of the reefs’ former glory, though I never would have realized it on my own.  The island has been the site of heavy construction in the past decade plus.  Hurricane Ivan, which struck in 2004, decimated much of the island’s coastline.  Real estate developers took advantage of the chaos left by natural disaster to move around land ordinances and develop huge coastal resorts.  Reef and mangrove dredging became the norm.  Mangrove forests act as a natural filtration system, removing sediment and waste from runoff before it hits the coral reefs; now, much of that protection is gone.

The sheer quantity of waste has gotten worse, too.  The hugely increased population means more sewage being flushed into the island’s porous calcium carbonate base.  This nitrogenous waste leaches out into the reefs, promoting the growth of macroalgae that compete with coral for sunlight and substrate.  Increased population -- up from around 40 thousand in 2000 to an estimated 60 thousand today -- also adds fishing pressures, and many key predators have seen their numbers heavily diminished in recent years.

On top of the local, global threats must be accounted for: warming water temperatures, ocean acidification.  A lionfish infestation believed to have originated in Florida has wreaked havoc on the aquatic Caribbean ecosystem.  Lionfish, with their razor-like toxic spikes and ghostly stillness, have outcompeted local predators and gobbled up prey. 

A total of 9 others joined me on this excursion to the Caribbean island of Grand Cayman, 7 students and two members of faculty.  Biology professor Betsy Sherman switched her professional focus to coral reef biology after observing the ecosystem’s noticeable decline within her first few years of diving.  She’s been leading Bennington students on the same trip every other year since 2004.  She wrangled Janet in 4 years ago.  Although Janet is an inorganic chemist at heart and deals mostly with metals, she found the ocean’s changing chemistry intriguing.  

“You can’t see the chemistry, but it is fundamental,” Janet told me during our trip.  “Ocean acidification seems simple on the surface, and it’s not.”

The student divers, for our part, spent the first two days of our week-long trip becoming SCUBA certified, and the remaining five conducting fish research during our dives while perusing scientific papers on reef ecology in our downtime.  After our returns home, we were asked to use the data we’d gathered in individual research projects, the results of which will be displayed in Dickinson sometime this term. 

Though aimed at science students, the trip brought together an academically diverse crowd.  The overlay of disciplines and resulting methods of thinking made for bright dinner table conversation when we ate collectively by the pool each evening. 

“It just seemed crazy not to come,” Zoe Huey, ’18, told me on our last night.  She studies a mixture of dance and visual art.  When I asked her if she felt her experience diving would impact her studies, she responded, “Aesthetically?  Yes.  Structurally?  Looking at the corals, looking at all of it, it’s so beautiful, there are so many forms – architecturally, structurally – all of it.  Coming here, and being in a whole other part of the world, I think it impacts you emotionally and you can’t separate your emotional self from your academic self at Bennington.”

Less conventional approaches to the studying coral reefs were, for me, the most compelling.  Fiona Eden, ’18, has her Plan written in linguistics.  She, too, found immense value in the trip.

“I study language policy, which is how political decisions and laws and written codes affect the way we use language, and I think this is giving me interesting ideas about policy implications that happen in environmental management,” she said.  “What are our intentions, and how are we trying to bring them to fruition?  Is that working at all?  Where are there conflicting ideas?  I’ve been thinking about the environment of reefs and the environment of language, and it’s made me want to take an ecology course or two, to give me that vocabulary, and to see if it works when describing languages.”

The three incoming sophomores in the group, Olivia Black, Kendra Ouellette, and Emma Salazar, said they were left wanting to incorporate marine biology into the Plans they’ll write this fall. 

“I’ve been thinking about how we can use social psych to change the way we get people involved and raise awareness,” Kendra expressed to me.  “When we read about lionfish a few months ago, I got interested and wrote a long paper about the lionfish culling competitions and how that relates to intrinsic motivation versus extrinsic.”

Being a climate change student, the journey provided me with new insight into how environmental science is inextricable from human social dynamics.  This being my first diving trip, I had no real point of reference against which to measure the current, depleted state of the reef, but Betsy was more than happy to fill me in.

“I first started diving when I was forty-five,” she informed me.  “I came down to Cayman, and the reef was beautiful, and after about 10 years it was noticeably less beautiful.”

The island politics are inseparable from reef health.  A British colony, Grand Cayman bears echoes of an oppressive empire.  Neoliberal economic practices have unleashed a slew of stressors on coral reefs.  Right now, the island’s ruling body is debating whether to dredge acres of reef and mangrove forest to make room for a cruise ship port. 

The island’s racial dynamics are difficult to ignore.  The hotel owner was Dutch, the bartender Scottish, the divemasters British and Australian.  The waiting staff and bus drivers were all Jamaican, save one Cayman local who drove me to the airport on my last morning.  

A bus trip into Georgetown, the island’s tourist center, ended up being almost unbearable.  Gaudy shops blasted air conditioning and sold throwaway trinkets.  After a morning spent surveying environmental damage to a vivid, multistory reef, this stark reminder of visiting Americans’ aimless consumerism was enough to push me over the edge.

“That was the most memorable part of the trip,” Olivia said later, “Going to Georgetown and being so upset by all the tourist shops and capitalism, after seeing all of the incredible coral reefs and hearing about how it was before.  And realizing how invasive it is being a tourist.”

It caused me to grapple with myself internally for a while.  I wanted to be self-righteous about it, to deem myself a more conscientious sort of white foreigner.  I hadn’t come to spend money on cheap t-shirts and shot glasses, or even to vacation, really.  On the contrary, this was my conservationist debut.  I had arrived with all the most common fish species memorized, ready to work.  Every time I sat on the rear of our dive boat and watched the tailpipe spew gasoline into the ocean, I could excuse myself: we were spewing for a cause.  

Except good intentions don’t make plane flights to the tropics any less carbon intensive.  Navigating a genuine environmentalism while locked in the grid of our perilously free market economy is not an easy task, but it is nonetheless one we must undertake.  The ongoing value of the trip, I hope, was having an ecological experience to reference alongside the planetary reality.  I know the ins and outs of the carbon cycle, but I could never overstate what it felt like to put down the New York Times science pages and actually make contact.  What the coral reef gave me, I aspire to give back.