Going Coral Gardening In Curaçao 

cleaning coral nursery tree 2 Tending a coral garden in Curaçao. Credit Tom Elliott


If you love gardening and scuba diving, I have a story to tell you!  Recently I travelled to the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao where my husband and dive buddy, Tom, and I had the opportunity to learn about coral gardening from the Coral Restoration Foundation Curaçao.  We have been diving in Curacao on nine trips over the past 12 years, and I am happy to say we are now volunteering to help restore the coral reefs in Curaçao.

The Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) is the world's largest non-profit marine conservation organization dedicated to restoring coral reefs. Since 2012 in Florida alone, CRF has planted more than 74,000 endangered staghorn and elkhorn corals with many growing into thriving coral communities. CRF is dedicated to monitoring the coral of restored reefs, researching various coral genotypes to support coral resilience, as well as educating and empowering community programmes that support reef restoration.

Ocean Encounters Curaçao – founded the Coral Restoration Foundation Curaçao, a CRF initiative, in May 2015.  They began the coral nursery projects on their house reef, named Stella Maris which is located at Lions Dive & Beach Resort.  It all began with only ten coral trees of 400 coral fragments consisting of elkhorn and staghorn corals.  Since then, Ocean Encounters established additional coral nursery trees and continue to plant coral communities using coral from the nurseries.

staghorn coral transplanted to grid

Staghorn corals growing in an underwater nursery. Credit turtleandray.com

Other Curaçao dive shops have joined the initiative working with Coral Restoration Curaçao, and each started coral tree nurseries.  Dive shops include Atlantis Diving Curaçao and Scubaçao.  In addition to establishing coral nurseries, planting coral communities and training local divers to help care for the nurseries, the dive shops educate school children and the community on the importance of protecting our oceans.

A Day of Learning and Service

An invitation to attend a short course on coral restoration at Atlantis Diving was an exciting opportunity for Tom and I.  Atlantis Diving runs a community education programme coupled with a dive to work in their underwater nursery, which Tom and I participated in.

Before diving, Ruud, Atlantis Diving Manager, presented an overview of what CRF has done internationally, conveyed the impact of dying coral reefs in our oceans and to our lives.  We depend on corals for many reasons; here are a few:

  • Coral reefs provide food to millions of humans. Corals provide a place to house and feed fish and other marine animals that humans eat.
  • Coral reefs protect the land. Coral reefs can dissipate wave energy from storms and tsunamis, reducing damage on adjacent land.

There are many more good reasons that corals contribute to life in the ocean and on land.  I think it’s safe to say that protecting our oceans and the coral is critical.

Algae can smother and kill the coral so a large part of tending the coral garden is removing the algae.  Ruud then demonstrated how to clean the nursery, tend the coral garden, and scrub algae from the PVC tree structure and monofilament lines supporting the coral pieces. 

Our Experience

Our group of eight divers suited up just like we would for any dive.  Atlantis Diving supplied tanks and weights at no charge.  We headed to the water going for a short underwater swim to tend the coral nursery.  As we were swimming towards the nursery, in the distance we began to notice a field of what looked like underwater television antennas.  As we swam closer, it looked like a Christmas tree field with ornaments hanging from the trees.  Arriving at the coral nursery, we could see each tree had dozens of pieces of coral hung by monofilament lines.

staghorn coral established on grid

New growth on the coral 'plants'. Credit turtleandray.com

We dug into the tool bag for toothbrushes or scouring pads – our cleaning tools.  After Tom took photos, he joined me to complete cleaning one coral nursery tree.  Although I hate to clean at home, I enjoyed cleaning the coral nursery submerged in about 6m of water.

On close inspection, we saw varying sizes of coral bits, noticing that some had white ends where they were broken and others had growth covering the ends.  New growth is a brighter colour, almost pinkish.  It reminds me of tending my tomato garden – when I visit the garden, I see tomatoes at various stages of growth, changing colour as they grow.

When Ruud called time, some of us did a short underwater swim to see the beautiful natural elkhorn coral near our dive entry point.  A golden coral fanned out like a flower opening to the sun, with baby fish hiding in the shade and protected by the coral branches – so beautiful to see it sparkling in the sunlight.

Coral Restoration Foundation Curacao – A Work in Progress

Pol Bosch, Instructor, Captain and Supervisor at Ocean Encounters, and the person who brought the CRF initiative to Curaçao, invited us to see Ocean Encounters’ extensive coral nurseries and planted coral communities.

On the swim out, we saw and videoed many of the planted coral communities that had been grown from the nursery and installed by Pol and Ocean Encounters’ volunteers.  It was like visiting garden fields where each garden patch is growing at different speeds with the flowers, or in this case, the corals, beginning to prosper, grow and fill out the garden patch.

We found the newly grown reefs of various sizes with fish life in and around them.  Some schools of fish attempted to hide out in the restored reefs.  What fun to inspect the various reefs, and check out all the fish life among the newly grown coral!

staghorn coral on tree single

Close-up of one of the attached coral fragments. Credit turtleandray.com

I was excited to see all of the elkhorn corals growing near the island’s edge off of Mambo Beach.  It is very heartening to see the elkhorn and staghorn regrowth.

Over 2,350 Corals Grown

Proud of their work, Ocean Encounters and Bryan Horne (the Founder of Dive Curaçao), who coordinates initiatives around Dive Tourism on Curaçao, invited us to see the many additional reefs planted by Ocean Encounters and its volunteers.  As of July 2018, Ocean Encounters had grown 1,750 corals, and two other shops have grown 600 corals.  So far, corals have been restored and planted on six reefs on man-made foundations.

Bryan, Tom, and I joined an afternoon snorkel boat trip that dropped us off at Directors Bay to make the one-direction dive to the Tugboat site.  Our plan was to see the numerous corals planted that are creating new reefs.

Bryan led us on a personal tour of the reef plate communities that Ocean Encounters has transplanted, almost too many to count.  Reefs range in size; some had schools of fish in them, others had individual fish who found their homes in the newly grown reefs.  We were amazed to see all the reef communities that have been restored since 2015.

We felt sad leaving the newly grown reefs behind as we continued our way to Tugboat.  It was a privilege to see a secret garden that most people will never see.  Tom and I knew that we would be back.

Volunteering for Coral Restoration

Since retiring, I wanted to do volunteer work in the oceans.  With the corals in dire straits, volunteering to work with CRF Curaçao on our favourite island was a great fit.  We were so excited to see that coral reefs can be re-grown and some rather quickly.  It was a rewarding hands-on experience, assisting in the CRF initiative on Curaçao.  We have plans to return and continue the work in 2019!

staghorn coral outplanted thriving 1

An established new reef with a healthy fish population. Credit turtleandray.com

Would you like to help too?  You can, it’s easy.  Check it out for yourself.  To participate in coral restoration, contact the Coral Restoration Foundation Curaçao or one of the participating dive shops:

 Atlantis Diving https://www.atlantisdiving.com/eco-active/coral-restoration-foundation

Ocean Encounters https://www.oceanencounters.com/en/coral-restoration-curacao/

Scubaçao http://www.scubacao.com/coral-restoration-curacao/

And you can find out more about Wendy and Tom on https://adventurousretirement.com



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