The geological past and present of Curaçao rely on coral. Its ecological and economic survival depend on it as well.
The island of Curaçao lies just a little bit to the north of Venezuela and is surrounded by more than 40 square miles of some of the best coral reefs in the Caribbean. The coral reefs are normally found 65 to 1,000 feet from shore where they start at a depth of approximately 30 feet and then slope down to a depth of over 300 feet in some places. In addition to its fringing reefs, large inland bays can be found around the island in which mangrove and seagrass communities thrive and serve as nursery areas for certain types of reef fish that are less abundant on similar islands that have no inland bays. While coral reefs alive today are still growing around the island, coral reefs that were formed in the past and were raised above water due to sea level changes essentially form the island that we now call Curaçao.
"On the other hand, one can find reefs that have remained unchanged for more than 50 years."
Many people aren’t sure whether coral is a plant, animal, or simply a rock; basically all answers are correct to some degree. Corals are animals much like the more familiar anemones that are connected together and as such form an “animal carpet”. Because nutrients were not very abundant in the water, corals evolved to incorporate small algae (i.e. zooxanthellae) in their tissues that are capable of transforming CO2 into sugars through photosynthesis. The algae have a place to live in exchange for providing these sugars to the corals, which grow to form a limestone skeleton that sustains the growing carpet of coral polyps or anemones.
Corals are capable of building massive limestone structures that can be seen from space. These structures provide a habitat for many other animals such as fish, lobsters, and octopi, which all hide in between the coral colonies and make coral reefs the most bio-diverse ecosystems on the planet. This means that there is no other place where so many animal and plant species can be found in a relatively small area.
It just so happens that Curaçao is an excellent place to see this diversity for yourself. Unlike many other islands in the Caribbean, a car is often sufficient to reach remote dive or snorkel sites where you can simply jump in the water to explore the underwater world.
When swimming around the islands you will find reefs that range in quality from degraded to almost pristine and among the best in the Caribbean. A good rule of thumb to predict whether a site is degraded or not, is to determine whether there is near-shore development in the area. Coastal development (and all its side effects) is the biggest culprit of the degradation of reefs around the island. Not all degradation can be related to human activities, however; several storms that hit Curaçao over the last decade have severely impacted the shallower reefs around the island. Large waves have tumbled over coral colonies or buried them beneath large sand masses set in motion by the large swells. On the other hand, one can find reefs that have remained unchanged for more than 50 years. Such reefs are found in the remote areas of the island such as in the Curaçao Marine Park along the southeastern side of the island or at certain locations along the wave-impacted north side of the island. Large coral colonies and coral species currently listed as threatened in the wider Caribbean can still be found in large numbers at these remote locations.
That said, it would be naive to think that coral reefs are currently doing fine. Global warming results in the expulsion of the symbiotic zooxanthellae causing the corals to starve, and overfishing has resulted in lack of “mowing-power” by herbivorous fish so that corals, more and more, face overgrowth by algae. The porous limestone foundation of the island allows all sorts of pollutants to run from the land to the reefs nearby and cause corals to become diseased because of higher bacterial growth in the near-shore waters.
While Curaçaoan reefs are still in relatively good shape and show the potential to once again grow to their former glory, everyone on the island, locals and visitors alike, should recognize the delicate nature of these systems and work to minimize their impact on what is considered one of the most beautiful ecosystems on the planet. A common sense approach is often enough. A healthy reef provides numerous benefits to small islands like Curaçao: it supports all sorts of activities such as diving, snorkeling, fishing, and swimming, but also protects the shore from storm events, generates the sand required to form natural beaches on the island, and ensures good water quality so all the above-mentioned activities can take place. Economists have calculated that coral reefs provide goods and services worth about $375 billion worldwide each year – a staggering figure for an ecosystem which covers less than one percent of the earth’s surface.
The observation that coral reefs are declining worldwide has resulted in a myriad of protective measures to reduce the effects of land-based pollutants and to curb overharvesting in order to enhance coral reefs’ ability to withstand the detrimental effects of climate change whose causes can generally not be dealt with at a local level. In the Caribbean, the reefs of Curaçao stand a good chance of surviving once such protective measures are employed locally. This is currently ongoing and several organizations on the island work with other stakeholders to achieve this goal.
For many islands, the realization of the need to take action has come too late and reef systems have collapsed. The result has been losses in tourism and fishing revenue, floods, and deteriorated water quality, which has led to waterborne diseases that affect human health. None of that has happened on Curaçao and as such the island’s reefs remain amongst the best in the Caribbean region. Enjoy them and protect them!
Story written by Dr. Mark Vermeij & Bryan Horne. Dr. Mark Vermeij is a coral reef ecologist with Caribbean Research & Management of Biodiversity (CARMABI). Bryan Horne is a PADI Master Instructor, EFR Instructor Trainer, a commercial boat captain, and the General Manager of GO WEST Diving.