From March 18th to April 7th, Corales de Paz team was receiving the support of three young danish volunteers who for three weeks were in San Andres and Providencia being trained in coral restoration and coral monitoring techniques. They were our first international Reef Repair divers y Reef Check Divers in this volunteer program that Corales de paz began this year. They could experiment the islands in a different way and get involved in the coral conservation work that is being carry out in San Andrés and Providencia.

This text was prepared by Vera, Victoria and Tobias. They share to all of us their daily experiences. We hope this is the first of many visits for our first volunteers and we invite you to participate in this volunteer program.
Corales de Paz team say thanks to Entremares Providenica diving center, Posada Nativa Barracudas’camp, Armada Nacional and Fly Hight company for the support.

First week of volunteering with Corales De Paz: Reef Repair

1st day

Today we learned the basic concepts of reef rehabilitation, such as reef ecology in general, the coral gardening method, different kinds of reef restoration methods, identifying coral diseases etc. Next, we did a practical exercise in order to learn how to attach the corals to the nurseries underwater.

2nd day

The first dive of the many dives to come in the following weeks. We did basic buoyancy exercises, since buoyancy is key when cleaning, transplanting and attaching corals. Then we saw the demonstration site for the coral nurseries, and tried attaching our very first corals onto the nurseries. A big stingray swam by during the dive, and we saw tiny salpids all around us.  On the second dive of the day, we searched the reef for fragments of opportunity, which is naturally broken corals that you can take to the nurseries. They can be a little hard to find when you’re not that experienced. During the afternoon we had a class learning how to identify the health stages of corals.

3th day

Today we cleaned the nurseries with toothbrushes, brushing away the algae to make sure the corals can grow and thrive. It was quite hard for us as beginner divers because you need good buoyancy control to make sure you avoid damaging the corals. After finishing the dive, we talked to a diver at the dive shop who told us that he’d just seen a hammerhead shark on the reef, where we dived. Depending on how you feel about sharks, it can be discussed whether it was lucky oy unlucky that we didn’t see it! At last, we did a lesson in transplanting corals with cement in a park.

4th day

On our first dive of the day, we went to the dive spot West View to practice monitoring the health stages of corals and identifying different kinds of coral, algae, sponge etc. Furthermore, we enjoyed the reef, dove into caves, saw an even bigger stingray and an underwater statue of Poseidon. Afterwards, we drove to do our second dive at Nirvana, where we transplanted our very first corals with cement. Such an amazing feeling, to transplant a little coral onto the big reef and hopefully be able to see it has grown when we come back.

5th day

The last day of reef repair. We got to see the big nurseries at West Point! It was quite incredible to finally see the huge coral nurseries with app. 5000 corals and understand the scale of Corales De Paz’ project. We transplanted little coral fragments onto the reef again. Practicing our skills with location placing it the right way, making sure it’s cleaned properly and, the hardest part I thought, cementing the coral onto the rock. After the dive, we enjoyed a big lunch of local food and celebrated that we now are reef repair divers!

Second week of volunteering with Corales De Paz: “My experience with Reef Check Program in Providencia”

1st day

We got up early in the morning on San Andres to catch the catamaran to Providencia. Although it was quite a bumpy ride, and Victoria was struck by sea sickness, the trip showed its worth from the first glimpse of the beautiful, green hilltops and white beaches booming with palm trees that makes up Providencia. In the harbour we were greeted by Corales de Paz-member Angela that was enthusiastic about getting started and wanted to go diving in the afternoon. However we were all a little nauseous after the boat trip, and Angela showed out to be very considerate and rescheduled the plans. We were taken to “posada Barracuda’s Camp”, where we got a private room that was pure luxury to us compared to our stays when we travelled around in the mainland of Colombia. Pablo and Doris, an elderly couple who own the place, were from the first moment very kind and helpful and now after a week we feel more like friends than customers. In the evening we did an interesting theory session, where Angela introduced Reef Check, told us about the history of the survey method, the global need and finally introduced us to the fish survey and taught us the key indicator species that we would need to know for tomorrow’s dives.

2nd day

The first dive we picked up where we had left off in the Reef Repair Program in San Andres and finished our practical exercises as Reef Repair divers. We took turns measuring the corals while the other two of us cleaned the nurseries. It was exciting to see the only four coral nurseries in Providencia but sadly due to lack of maintaining and damage caused by a boat the nurseries were not in as good shape as those of San André. This experience emphasized to me how important the maintaining and monitoring part is in the coral gardening process. I am excited to give a hand with restoring the nurseries in the following week when I will practice my skills as a reef repair and reef check diver.

On the second dive we practiced the fish survey, which is the first survey to be done in Reef Check as the presence of divers can scare of fish and as a consequence will influence the result. We wrote all the indicator species down on our underwater slades and Angela showed us the different species by pointing to the fish and then to the name. I found it quite hard to differenciate the species from one another, and I was a little nervous about if I would become a reliable diver to execute reef checks after my training. But it was amazing for the first time to experience diving with other eyes, because instead of just diving through the reef and looking at the landscape, you were now swimming slowly trying to capture all the details of the fishes from the shape of their tail fin to their pattern and colors.

In the night we had another theory session in the same style as the one concerning the fish survey, but this time regarding invertebrate species, key indicator invertebrates. In addition to this we learned about different impacts on corals and how to recognize anthropogenic impacts as well as coral diseases. Angela ended the night by giving us a promise: That tomorrow we would dive with sharks!

3th day

On this day we did a fun dive at a dive spot called “Felipe’s place”. I will admit that me and Victoria were a little anxious about the promise we had been given last night. At least when we put on our equipment, and did the backwards flip from the boat and into the water, we were very fast to put on our snorkel and look down to see if there was anything under us. This turned out to be the most thrilling dive I had done so far. We dived down to 20 m and went along a wall on our right side and the big blue view of open water on our left. Reef sharks came from everywhere and swam aside us for a while before turning back into the shadows of blue. They were so majestic, moving their tails from side to side as they made their way towards and away from us in the dramatic scenery. And as it wasn’t enough we had to dive through a long vertical gash in the reef to ascent to the surface.

In the second dive, we practiced the invertebrate test. Angela planted the transect line and we dived in an s-shaped pattern along the line looking in every crack we could find for urchins, shrimps, lobsters and all the other indicator species. I found this dive particularly challenging regarding bouyancy as you would sometimes need to be upside down, sideways and all kinds of weird positions to get a good look at the shy invertebrates. However it was a fun test where I got to practice my diving skills as well as Reef Check skills.

In the evening we had a theory session about substrate types, and Angela taught us the different corals, sponges and alges we would need to know before the exercise on the next day.

4th day

On the last day of the Reef Check Program we were, to our surprise, picked up by a boat owned by the Colombian navy and sailed by two officers to the spots where we would be diving. Angela explained that the coastal guards, equally interested in keeping the ocean and its ecosystems healthy, cooperates with Corales de Paz and we thought this was pretty cool. On the first dive we did the substrate survey and identified the substrate underneath a point on the transect every 0.5 m.

After this we had finished practicing all the individual surveys that combined makes up a Reef Check. We were ready to execute the entire survey and that was what we practiced during the second dive. We each agreed on who would do each survey and took turns to swim along the transect line and do our tasks. As I did the fish survey, I was the first to go and after just two meters along the line I encountered a huge school of grunts. I had to count an area of the school and then multiply this to get an estimate. As I went along the transect line I identified at least one of every indicator species. It was a huge personal success for me to realize how much I had learned and that with more practice I might actually become the excellent Reef Check diver I earlier the same week had feared I wouldn’t.

In the same afternoon we had our final tests, where we had to identify fish, substrate and invertebrate types as well as estimating the bleached percentage of corals and categorize the cause of their damage. We all passed the tests with some mistakes, but in general we finished the program with a feeling of being capable to do Reef Checks and having reached the objectives of the program.

When I look back at the program I can’t believe that I learned so much in only four days. Before the program the only specific fish species I knew was the parrot fish, I didn’t really know what animals were invertebrates and not, and I couldn’t even tell the difference between corals and sponges. So it goes without saying that this program has made me look at the reef and its habitants in a completely new way, and has expanded my experience every time I go diving, even when its just for fun. I’m excited to practice and refine my skills in the following week where I will work with the coral nurseries and execute more Reef Checks. Even more exciting will it be to see what opportunities this experience will bring me in the future. Professionally I have no dreams about working as a marine biologist or with the oceans in general. However, as the eco diver programs I am now certified to execute are used across the globe for conserving marine life, I am now able to combine my passion for traveling with eco diving and gain many more experiences equally rewarding to me and the oceans. Eco diving is for this reason still very relevant to me and everyone else who loves exploring, traveling with a meaningful purpose and go on tropical adventures.

Sobre el Autor

Angela Alegría Ortega
Soy Ingeniera Biológica (Maestría en Biología), Divemaster y Reef Check EcoDiver. Como entusiasta de la conservación y buzo, mi función como Coordinadora del Programa de Ciencias de los Arrecifes es promover y fomentar proyectos de investigación destinados a mejorar la ciencia y la conservación de los arrecifes de coral.