Photograph courtesy of the Oceanic Society

— Natural Wonders —

Speaker Transcript of Audio Presentation Images
Sylvia Earle Introduction
Belize is a country blessed with high mountains and deep reefs and many beautiful things in between.

Coral Reefs
This barrier reef that features, in addition to the submerged reef, little islands that look like a storybook version of what a tropical island should be, with birds and palm trees, and beautiful white beaches, with an offshore area of coral reefs just populated with some of the most incredible creatures on the planet.

It all ties together a single integrated system. The mangroves are part of the system. The sea grass beds are part of the system. The rivers are—the forest upstream, the birds, the mammals on the land—flowing almost seamlessly into a connection to the creatures that live in the sea.

The barrier reef that runs along the shore of Belize is the second largest in the world. It is absolutely a beautiful area, largely intact, largely undisturbed. The diversity is amazing.

There are brain corals. There are branching corals of several different kinds. Sea fans and other soft corals are mixed among the stony corals that make up the substance of the reef, along with some of the plants that also deposit calcium carbonate—limestone—in the same way the corals do.

There are some 30 major divisions of animals on the Earth—land and sea—and more than a dozen major divisions of plants. Nearly all of them occur in the ocean, nearly all of them occur in a coral reef.

Enlarged view of Belize map with key
Barbara Bilgre If reefs were gone, people couldn’t exist on this planet.
Sylvia Earle We watched, while we were out snorkeling around off Blackbird Caye, the little bubbles of oxygen that were being generated by the sea grass beds. Now of course it’s happening in the rain forests on the land as well, but you don’t see the oxygen as it escapes out into the atmosphere. But underwater you actually can see these little silver bubbles coming back out into the atmosphere.
Yellowtail snapper, Lighthouse Reef
Still image taken from video by Kevin White
Barbara Bilgre The reefs are really important because they’re finding microscopic organisms that have chemicals that may aid in cures for cancers or AIDS or other types of human diseases.

There have been times when they’ve used some of the branching corals as bone replacements in humans.

Sylvia Earle Reef Fish
The fish that live on the reef are also extremely diverse. There are the grazers. That includes surgeonfish and parrotfish and some of those fiesty little damselfish—you’re so glad that they’re only two or sometimes three inches [five or six and a half centimeters] long instead of two or three or six feet long [0.6 or 0.9 or 1.8 meters long]—they have an attitude, very territorial. A tiny little fish will come up and go after a diver. I mean, it’s ridiculous; it’s like a mouse after an elephant, basically, in terms of their ability to make a dent in a diver, but they are very protective of their little patch of reef.

The grouper, I think of them as the Labrador retrievers of the sea. They’re just such good-natured fish, they follow you around and look at you with their great large inquisitive eyes.

Some of us were out snorkeling and encountered a number of the local residents—they’re called Carribean reef squid—that lined up, eight of them, to look at us while we were looking at them.

Bordering the shores of much of the coast of Belize and even the offshore islands are these wonderful, rich, productive mangrove islands. Along the shores the most common trees are the red mangrove. You can see their prop roots that really make a network of roots and rootlets that provide a unique sort of habitat for small fish, for crabs, for shrimp, for thousands of creatures that really find cover and food and just a place to live back miles along the shoreline.

Bermuda chub, Long Caye
Still image taken from video by Kevin White

Red mangroves, Turneffe Atoll
Photograph by Bella Desai

Julie Robinson Mangrove forests are vital to the production of the coral reefs.

They actually take sediments out of the water, making the water clearer. And of course, coral reefs need clear water in order to grow.

Mangrove killed by hurricane
Photograph by Bella Desai
Barbara Bilgre Belize would be completely submerged underwater if it weren’t for the mangroves. They help stabilize sediment, they take pollutants out of the water, they help build islands, they act as storm breaks.
Sylvia Earle Local Habitat
Around the reefs and the mangroves and the forests that are inland on the offshore islands—it’s been adopted by red-footed boobies as a special nesting and roosting area, and these birds are just beautiful: snowy white feathers and then these startling red feet. These birds look as though they’ve been designed by Picasso or some wild artist.

The tarantulas, these big furry-looking spiders that look scary, I suppose, to some—these are creatures that really belong here.

In the green parts of the jungle, you’re likely to walk over the footprints of wondrous animals such as jaguars and ocelots, tapirs, and other creatures that call the forest home.

They are magnificent creatures, certainly worthy of our respect and worthy of our protection.

Red-footed booby, Half Moon Caye
Photograph by Deborah Krein

— Threats —

Speaker Transcript of Audio Presentation Photographs
Sylvia Earle Introduction
Coral reefs have become, for the sea, symbolic of some of the issues that now face not just the ocean but the world. Some regard the coral reefs as the rain forests of the sea. Just as with rain forests, the diversity of life around coral reefs is staggering. The variation on the themes of plants and animals is really unusual. But in a sense they, like rainforests, have another way of symbolizing the issues of today. In the last 25 or 30 years the coral reefs have really declined … just as rain forests have on the land at an unprecedented rate.

Coral reefs are basically a weather vane of what is happening to the ocean. If the coral reefs are in trouble, the oceans are in trouble. … If the ocean is in trouble, so are we.

We have to strike a balance between the natural world and the human societies … based on the ability of the natural world to sustain us, to support us. There’s a point beyond which we cannot continue to survive if we consume the systems that make it possible for us to live.

Just in the last 25 or 30 years we’ve noticed a collapse of populations of creatures that were notable for their abundance.

Lobsters—they used to be large and numerous in parts of the Caribbean. Now, not so numerous and shockingly small.

One of the growing problems is that the local people are not being served directly by the fish and lobsters and conchs. … But rather, [the animals are] being sold off to distant markets.

The appetite for lobster in Miami and New York and Tokyo has drained the reefs faster than can be replenished by the creatures that are there. We’re taking too much, too fast.

Agricultural Dangers
When rain forests and other terrestrial systems are cleared for agricultural purposes, it’s certainly understandable. People want to raise crops that have a good market, so oranges and grapefruit and other citrus crops replace, in many areas, the rain forest and other systems that once carpeted the land. We can get away with doing some of this, especially if the shoreline itself is maintained in good shape. But whatever we take out of the natural systems means a sacrifice of what keeps the land healthy, and the sea that is adjacent. And so often the agricultural efforts do not keep in mind what happens to the adjacent rivers and what happens to the systems offshore.

Runoff from the land clouds the rivers and ultimately smothers the reef with sediment.

What we have been applying to the crops in terms of pesticides and herbicides has a downstream consequence. It isn’t just that it isn’t good for insect pests; it’s not good for human beings either. One of the things that biologists have learned, certainly in the last few decades, is [that] the chemistry of life all ties together. Ultimately what we do to other creatures we’re doing to ourselves.

Of course places need to be built to accommodate visitors and residents alike, but there are ways to go about construction that are compatible with the natural systems that will retain the health of the land, the air, and the waters (freshwater as well as marine). And there are ways that we can go about such things that are destructive, and that create enduring problems.

Deforestation for agricultural development
Photograph by Bella Desai

Citrus groves along Hummingbird Highway
Photograph by Bella Desai

Princess Hotel construction, Belize City
Photograph by Bella Desai

Brain coral with encroaching algae
Photograph by Bella Desai

Julie Robinson Along with these coastal developments there comes clearing of mangroves, there comes pollution, there comes dredging and sedimentation.
Sylvia Earle Trash
It’s shocking today to see the debris along the shore. Not debris that has originated directly from the communities around Belize, but from distant places.

Some of the trash that winds up along the beaches of Belize may have originated 1,000 or 10,000 miles [1,610 or 16,100 kilometers] away, carried by the currents and ultimately coming to rest on these once pristine shores.

Of course, a few enterprising creatures are taking advantage of the new junk that’s on their beach, in their backyard.

Corals that have been stressed because of pesticides, because of a warming trend in water temperature, because of a whole host of things—siltation—may be more susceptible to diseases.

Both of these coral types have been affected by black band disease, where just a long line of encroaching disease engulfs the entire coral head.

In some cases 90 percent and more of the coral that 25 years ago was thriving now is just dead.

It really is looking like swimming through a ghost town, where just these dead branches are still in place, but covered now, not with a living mantle of coral but with a fine carpet of algae and other encrusting organisms that move in when the coral dies.

Hermit crab at home in a pill bottle
Photograph by Sylvia Earle

— Conservation —

Speaker Transcript of Audio Presentation Photographs
Sylvia Earle Introduction
People here in Belize are right into this concept of taking care of the entire country, starting at the tops of the mountains, proceeding down through the rain forest, encompassing the rivers, and going out to the mangrove fringe along the shore and then offshore to the reefs and the islands that are out at sea.

Every individual has power to make a difference.

The key to finding a place for ourselves, an enduring place within the natural systems that support us is really understanding them. And that means we’ve got to really go find out what’s going on. Call it research if you will, call it exploration.

We need to understand what makes a coral reef work. Observing the behavior of creatures, just assessing their numbers, over time, to see the trends of populations. And to get a perspective, to establish baseline studies so that over the years you can tell what changes are taking place. And to really get some solid evidence about how many of what kinds of creatures make up a coral-reef system or a rain forest or the integrated nature of land and sea together.

Conservation guidelines at Half Moon Caye
Photograph by Bella Desai
Julie Robinson Research and data collection is working toward improving the regulations and the laws of Belize.
Sylvia Earle Marine Sanctuaries
Just as in other places on the land, where national parks have been established to protect the health of the land, so in the ocean reefs are being established [as] “no take” places, where fish and crabs and lobsters are safe to do what it takes to make more fish and crabs and lobsters.
Julie Robinson Marine protected areas are very important to the sustainability of the resources.
Sylvia Earle Anyone can help
Often people yearn to make a difference: “What can I do that will help turn things around?”

Oh, there are thousands of things.

When you see a piece of trash on the beach, pick it up! I mean, who else is going to do it but you? It does make a difference.

Similarly, if you go to a restaurant and you see something on the menu that you know is probably better off out there in the ocean, don’t order it.

It’s just one small thing, but if people all together make those personal choices and take those personal actions, collectively it will—it does—make a difference.

Educate yourself. An educated, informed public is the most important investment we can make at this point in time. I worry about what we’re taking out of the ocean, about what we’re putting in, but I worry most of all about ignorance. About not knowing. It’s hard to care if you don’t know. Even if you do know, you may not care, but you can’t care—[it’s] guaranteed you can’t—if you don’t know. So you as an individual, whoever you are, if you care, share that caring with someone else, and become better informed yourself. Every little thing you know magnifies as you know more. You will become powerful as you become informed.

As we understand more about our connections to nature, we are able make wiser, smarter decisions that not only benefit jaguars and rain forests and coral reefs—they benefit ourselves, humankind.

We should value, respect, care for, and do everything we can to take care of these natural systems, because in the end they take care of us.

Sylvia Earle (center) leading underwater cleanup
Photograph by Sandra Nicholls

Snorkeling lesson in preparation for coral research
Photograph by Sylvia Earle

© 2001 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.


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